Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
What's Not To Like?
Clean cut. Rough edges long gone, without much sanding required. Occasionally gets angry, but usually at himself. Speaks in full sentences. Has made a couple of bonehead moves at Talladega, but nothing seriously wreckless. Almost eager to please. Didn't fall for Carl Edwards' slide job in Kansas. OK, once broke his wrist while clowning around on a golf cart during the off season, possibly while under the influence. Has the same sponsor since he broke in. About to tie a NASCAR record most thought was out of reach.
So, what's not to like about Jimmie Johnson?
Headed into his latest Sprint Cup coronation at Homestead, Johnson embodies all that one could ask for in a champion on and off the track. But diehard NASCAR fans are still slow to embrace him. Compared to some of his predecessors, he doesn't have enough spikey surfaces nor does he fit the expectation of a NASCAR champion for many.
For my money, any guy who is closing in on three straight Sprint Cup titles under the current Chase format deserves every accolade as the sport's standard bearer. Congenial, relatively accessible and given to detailed answers that include some introspection, Johnson fulfills the key criteria of reporters trying to cover a complicated sport. Presumably, all these qualities come across in TV interviews, stories, blogs and excerpts from press conference transcripts that find their way to the Internet.
Yet, a longtime fan I know quite well still makes disparaging comments which typify the lack of embrace for this star driver. "If Jimmie Johnson wins the championship again this year, I'm going to quit being a NASCAR fan," he said. At least people used to continue to show up to see Darrell Waltrip or Dale Earnhardt Sr. get beat and later Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart.
It's not unheard of for a racing series to grow because of the success of a dynamic driver, such as Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough or Earnhardt Sr., all of whom dominated the NASCAR championship picture during stretches of their careers. This is not a phenomenon known only to NASCAR. Formula 1's popularity recently benefitted from the incredible talent and success of Michael Schumacher, first at Benetton and later at Ferrari. It does not appear to be happening with Johnson.
The most recent surge in NASCAR popularity due to success occurred when Gordon arrived in 1993 wearing what one writer described as a learner's permit mustache, an almost comical attempt to disguise his youth. Gordon's big seasons were greeted with a cascade of boos by the old school that disdained his Midwestern lifestyle that was as flat as the video screens he liked better than hunting and fishing. But Gordon was greeted with open arms by younger fans and women, whose enthusiasm added numbers in the grandstands and in TV ratings. Putting everybody up in arms, Gordon fulfilled the passion of the old school and the new school while filling the coffers of all NASCAR participants.
Don't look now, but Johnson has just surpassed Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon in the all-time winning percentage standings. And, Johnson is chasing Yarborough's record of three straight titles, a mark Gordon missed en route to four championships. In these regards, Johnson's early career path at least rivals that of Gordon and in some respects has surpassed it.
If it's racing the fans are after, Johnson has fit the bill time and again in a manner reminiscent of Yarborough's flat-out style. This year at Indy, he fought back all day from positions lost on pit stops amid harrowing tire problems to secure the Brickyard trophy and add crucial momentum to his season. He's clawed his way to the top of the points despite stellar seasons by Kyle Busch and Edwards, the two rivals who also take well to the new COT chassis. Phoenix winner Johnson has not turned into a points racing strumbo down the stretch, either.
The man whose legacy he's chasing grew up dirt poor in South Carolina, where Yarborough claims he was hit twice by lightning as a youth and says he kept water moccasins as pets. Yarborough ran his first laps at Darlington as a minor, played semi-pro football and in general presented himself as a tall tale waiting to happen.
No doubt a great driver, Yarborough survived a quantum leap of speeds in the early 1970's at the Indy 500, no easy feat considering that's where the ballyhooed career of fellow South Carolinian LeRoy Yarbrough began to lose its wheels after a heavy crash.
Once he returned to NASCAR, Cale then rose to stardom aboard Junior Johnson's cars and took his three straight titles in 1976-78. Sometimes cantankerous and sometimes a charmer, Yarborough promoted himself off the track as hard as he drove on it.
Future Daytona 500 winner Johnson drifted in from the Southern California desert with the confidence and mystery of Clint Eastwood after establishing his credentials in off-road racing, but without any flair for drama. Teammate Gordon, who is also part owner of Johnson's entries along with Rick Hendrick, had already taken the wind out of the sails when it came to history-making changes to the image of NASCAR's stars. That allowed Johnson, quite literally the boy next door, to become a winner without much fanfare. He nearly won the first Chase in 2004, which might have brought him more acclaim as a young world beater. As it was, he fell eight points short of Kurt Busch.
Four years later, there's no doubt about Johnson's status as one of NASCAR's all-time greats. But presently, news of economic upheaval and team merger mania seems to have upstaged his historic quest in the blogosphere, another bad piece of historical timing. The remarkable journey also gets underplayed by many newspapers, which these days are giving motor racing short shrift in the name of staff and space cutbacks.
After rain and wreck delays, ABC-TV even cut away to standard programming from the closing laps of Johnson's victory at Phoenix. Barring a complete disaster in Homestead, Johnson effectively clinched his third straight title the old-fashioned way -- on cable.
So what's not to like about Johnson? Very little. Therein seems to lie a problem. Knowing Jimmie, he'll probably just keep driving around it.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.