Ingram's Flat Spot On
Johnson Back On Home Turf
by Jonathan Ingram
If fans, participants and media were expecting Dale Earnhardt Jr. to be involved in the fourth round of this year's Chase as a contender for a victory and the Sprint Cup, would there be any talk about the state of NASCAR due to lagging ticket sales and TV numbers?
The fact the Auto Club Speedway qualifies as Jimmie Johnson's home track brings up this question. Having won a record four straight championships and now the favorite to win a fifth straight Chase, Johnson is sometimes credited with the downturn in enthusiasm for NASCAR and the deterioration of the traditional fan base. Heck, the nearest track to Johnson's home town doesn't come close to selling out its 92,988 seats.
What's not to like? Johnson comes from a working class family, worked his way up from off-road racing, has an easy-going personality and is as approachable as "The King," Richard Petty. He's less snobby than Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, perhaps because he's less of a matinee idol. And you can count on Johnson trying hard to answer the questions of the media with some informative detail, which gives fans plenty of insight to the sport and where's he's coming from.
Prior to qualifying for this Sunday's race in California, Johnson was quizzed on a variety of subjects.
One question concerned whether he's a favorite to win again on the 2.0-mile oval in Fontana?
"I come in optimistic for sure, but to have a race in February and then to come back in October, so much has gone on from a technical standpoint with the race cars that I'm optimistic," he said. "But at the same time I know that once we get out here, it's going to be a different set of circumstances than what we've seen in the past. I do have a lot of confidence in how we ran at Atlanta and then again last weekend in Kansas and think that we're going in the right direction with our setups and making our cars more competitive on these big tracks."
There's plenty of meat in an answer like this for enterprising reporters that can lead to significant follow-up questions, such as the technical changes on the cars, what changes the Hendrick team made to improve performance in Atlanta and Kansas, and how significantly different is the D-shaped oval in California from the 1.5-mile tracks?
Asked about his mindset when it comes to the Chase, Johnson had this reply.
"I do look at the points and I am curious where everyone is. I know how important every single point is, but I just choose not to over think things maybe. Just stay focused on what we need to do. We all have different things that we use to motivate ourselves with and set as a goal for the team. It's not a bad way to go about it; I've got nothing against it. I just don't really pay attention to it and just stay within my own head and what I need to do each week."
OK, not earth-shaking, but insightful as to how Johnson operates. He's a student of the game, focuses intently on details and works from race to race while avoiding getting involved in other teams' business or strategies. And he certainly stays clear of bragadocia, mind games with opponents or any other sort of public proclamation.
Compared to the often loquacious Gordon or other super stars such as John Force or Dario Franchitti, Johnson provides more info and insight when asked questions in fewer words. Maybe that's the problem. He doesn't ramble like Earnhardt Jr. or Force, who are both quite funny, he doesn't turn interviews into combat scenes like the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. or Tony Stewart. He doesn't self-promote like Cale Yarborough or Darrell Waltrip. He's got no country wisdom to offer in the vein of Petty.
Ultimately, Johnson is more like David Pearson, both on and off the track. In races, he's smooth and aggressive in a way that hasn't been seen since the days of the Silver Fox. Off the track, he avoids controversy and tries to let his results speak for themselves. He works hard to be good at all phases of the game and on all manner of tracks. A key difference is Johnson's willingness to talk about what he does in some detail where the Silver Fox seemed to worry about giving away information.
The context with the comparison to Pearson is certainly different. There's no major rival like Petty to get fans riled. There's not the same Ford vs. Dodge passion when it comes to Chevy vs. Toyota these days, although Denny Hamlin is considered Johnson's biggest threat when it comes to trying to win five straight championships. There isn't the emphasis on winning big races as there once was in the days of the Grand Slam.
Above all, Johnson doesn't represent an entire culture in the same way that hard-driving good ol' stars became champions in the hearts and minds of the working class in all regions of the country in the 1960's and 1970's.
My theory on the theory that Johnson's success is hurting ticket sales to NASCAR races is another theory. Johnson hasn't had to beat the stars of yore like Pearson, Petty, Yarborough and Allison, which was a prerequisite to the championships of Waltrip and Earnhardt Sr. Unlike Gordon, who had to beat Earnhardt Sr. one-on-one to get his first title and Daytona 500 victory, Johnson didn't have to beat Earnhardt Sr., either.
Tony Stewart may not have won a title in Earnhardt Sr.'s day, but he had to beat him to win three races during his rookie season and again when he won six times in his sophomore season. By time Johnson won three races in his rookie season -- to not much acclaim -- and nearly beat Gordon and winner Kurt Busch in the first year of The Chase, the old established good ol' stars were gone. It was not enough to beat Gordon and Stewart, non-southerners who represented the new generation, for Johnson to get his spurs with the fans.
It's worth noting that fans don't boo Johnson, because he didn't really displace anybody. That's a lot like his driving -- smooth, confident and incisive without causing a lot of upheaval. (See Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Carl Edwards when it comes to upheaval.)
It almost goes without saying that if Dale Earnhardt Jr. could drive as well as Johnson, the landscape in NASCAR would look a lot different. And that's just the point. Like Gordon and Stewart before him, Johnson has demonstrated that the age of the southerners with lead in their toes and courage in their hearts has pretty much passed into the history books when it comes to dominating the sport of stock car racing.
For all his fabulous talent, Johnson, born in El Cajon, Calif., doesn't even get a crown of thorns.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org