Jimmie Johnson's representatives at CAA Sports are calling his upcoming appearance on the HBO Sports series 24/7 the centrepiece in their efforts to provide the NASCAR driver with increased exposure.

CAA Sports signed Johnson, 34, in January 2008 and his appearance on 24/7, which will begin airing in late January and lead up to the Daytona 500 in February, marks the agency's first strike in an effort to spice up Johnson's vanilla image.

It is CAA's hope - and HBO's, too - that the behind-the-scenes series will reshape the perceptions many have developed in Johnson's nine-season NASCAR career. His backers assure that viewers will discover a more compelling figure than the one who wins with cold-blooded precision, but fails to generate much in the way of passion among the fans.

"With Jimmie, the criticism is a lot like what Roger Federer gets," said CAA's Michael Levine. "All he does is win."

But while Federer's brand has evolved into fashion and a global reach, Johnson's remains relatively limited to performance in the NASCAR world, even though he's on the verge of winning an unprecedented fourth straight Sprint Cup championship.

Despite that on-track dominance, Johnson's profile really hasn't transcended the sport. It hasn't even changed that much among NASCAR fans, according to the Davie-Brown Index, which measures a celebrity's attributes. The latest index doesn't have Johnson in the top five among NASCAR drivers in appeal. It remains difficult to attach a brand attribute to Johnson that goes beyond what he's done on the track, say sports marketers.

"Performance doesn't equal personality," said David Grant, a founding principal of Velocity Sports & Entertainment. "Jimmie's not a redneck, he's not a freak, he's not controversial, he's not a jerk. In fact, he's a really nice guy. He's always proper, he always says the right thing, but that's not what people want to talk about."

When Johnson selected CAA 22 months ago, he charged the agency with developing new and different opportunities, the kinds of things other drivers aren't doing. It's taken awhile, but the appearance on 24/7 was the kind of thing he had in mind. CAA also is working on a Johnson-branded video game that he is developing with an unnamed gaming company, a deal the agency arranged.

"I do think there is some growth that is yet to come, because there's just beginning to be the type of appreciation from the general sports fan for what he's accomplished," Levine said. "It's taken a little longer than I would have expected or liked. He's separated himself from the other drivers on the track. and he wants to do the same thing off the track."

Johnson's approach to endorsements has never been to take quantity over quality. Lowe's has been a longtime sponsor of his #48 car at Hendrick Motorsports and the two are expected to formalise an extension soon, a deal that costs the building supply retailer more than $20 million annually.

Johnson is often featured in ads for Lowe's Kobalt Tools brand and he was a central figure in Gatorade's 'League of Clutch' campaign two years ago. He also has personal endorsement deals with Tylenol, Sunoco, Gargoyles sunglasses and Bank of America, through its affinity credit card program The challenge with Johnson, though, is broadening his fan base beyond those who simply appreciate his driving skills and arousing the casual fans enough to make them care about his fourth straight title chase.

Mike Mooney, a vice president in Charlotte-based Millsport's racing division, said Johnson's appeal with fans doesn't measure up to his on-track performance. Millsport and its parent company, The Marketing Arm, manage the Davie-Brown Index, which rates Johnson well in awareness but not in appeal. "In a sport where you have so many different personalities, some wear them on their sleeve and some don't," Mooney said. "Jimmie is a very personable guy, but he also comes across as private."

The 24/7 series will give viewers that behind-the-curtain look that will introduce them to a fun-loving, wise-cracking guy, his friends say, which is why the exposure he'll receive from the series could boost his future marketability, while also providing NASCAR with a much-needed jolt of energy.

"The end goal is to show people who Jimmie is and what his lifestyle is about," said John Lewensten, vice president of operations for Jimmie Johnson Racing and the driver's right-hand man. "For the people who really know him, it's hard for us to understand how people think he's vanilla. We've had the media spend time with him away from the track and there have been some articles done, but nothing like this format.

"I'm confident the more people learn about Jimmie, the more they'll become fans. And if the by-product is that Jimmie becomes more marketable in the process, that's great."

24/7 isn't an income producer for Johnson. HBO Sports does not pay either Johnson or NASCAR for its access, although it will pay NASCAR Media Group for its production work.

What the series can do for Johnson, though, is verify what his supporters have been saying all along, that there's more to the greatest winning force in NASCAR than the polite smile he flashes every time he lifts a trophy in victory lane.

Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports, said the network's documentary-style shows have the ability to change perceptions because of the inside access they receive. That was the case in this year's NFL training camp series "Hard Knocks" with Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco.

"Chad is a fun-loving, affable, dedicated athlete and the show blew the doors off the old perception of him," Greenburg said. "That will happen with Jimmie. Characters will come out of this show."

by Michael Smith
Michael Smith is a reporter with SportsBusiness Journal