Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Jimmie Johnson's drive for five yields NASCAR title, respect

Jimmie Johnson's drive for five yields NASCAR title, respect
Jimmie Johnson celebrates after winning his fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship after finishing second in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Nate Ryan, USA TODAY

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — As the championship coronation began for the fifth consecutive time, Jimmie Johnson seemed briefly dumbstruck while gazing through a shower of confetti and up at the crowd at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Several thousand fans, lingering in the frontstretch grandstands to salute NASCAR's king, bombarded Johnson with noise that hasn't always greeted his No. 48 Chevrolet.

Cheering — and much of it from those clad in the multihued garb of rivals who openly said Johnson's reign is hurting the popularity of stock car racing.

"I can hear you guys up there, that's right!" said Johnson, 35. "You might not be a 48 fan, but you saw something special today."

With a second-place finish in Sunday's Ford 400 (won by Carl Edwards), the Hendrick Motorsports driver outdueled Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin to capture his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup title. On the list of title winners, Johnson stands only behind the two Hall of Famers most synonymous with NASCAR: seven-time champions Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.

Now the question becomes whether Johnson — competing in an era of what's regarded as tighter competition because of better, more well-funded teams and more talented drivers — might be poised to leapfrog both — if he hasn't already.

"JJ is the greatest of all-time. period!" three-time champion and Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip tweeted Sunday evening, echoing Hall of Fame champion Bobby Allison, who said Saturday that Johnson would be viewed as the greatest NASCAR driver ever.

But a more tepid viewpoint came from the drivers whom Johnson has whipped with regularity since 2006. Several, including Harvick and Hamlin, have said Johnson's dominance is hurting the popularity of a sport whose audience seems in decline. Television ratings were down in the first nine Chase for the Sprint Cup races, and the estimated crowd of 67,000 was the 27th in 36 races to decrease from last year, according to NASCAR.

Though "Jimmie Johnson" ranked as high as fourth on Twitter's trending topics Sunday night, many of the tweets spewed vitriol about a driver some fans have said is too vanilla.

Johnson needed 327 races to win five titles — fewer than Petty (654) and the late Earnhardt (390). But he admittedly doesn't possess the boundless charm of "The King" nor the swagger of "The Intimidator," and his title reign was met Sunday mostly with begrudging respect.

"What they have accomplished is remarkable," Harvick said. "But they are also vulnerable."

Edwards, who won his second consecutive race after ending a 70-race winless skid, said, "They have proven that they are able to win more races and championships than the rest. We just have to figure out how ... they let the other guys make the mistakes."

Season in miniature

Hamlin entered Homestead with a 15-point lead and ended up 39 points behind after finishing 14th. He spun on lap 24, and his damaged Toyota never was as fast afterward.

"Coming this close is tough," he said. "There's a lot of things we can do as a team to be better."

Harvick couldn't have beaten Johnson with a win but still had to rally for third after a pit-road speeding penalty (it nullified his chances of applying pressure with 70 laps to go).

Johnson had to overcome errors (there were two slow stops by teammate Jeff Gordon's crew, which replaced Johnson's two races ago), but his runner-up finish was a microcosm of his season — he wasn't always quickest but still outplaced competitors.

"At times we didn't have the most speed, but we had the most heart," Johnson said.

Much of the credit is directed to crew chief Chad Knaus, who called a flawless race after outsmarting Hamlin's team on fuel mileage a week earlier to close the gap. But Knaus deflected the attention to Johnson: "(He) really hasn't gotten the praise he deserves. Finally, finally, I think he'll get the respect he needs."

That Johnson clinched the 10th Cup championship for team owner Rick Hendrick with a grind-it-out, blue-collar effort (leading one lap) was fitting for a driver who has battled the perception of being stock car racing's ultimate silver spoon, gifted a ride with the best team.

The son of a heavy-machinery operator and a school bus driver was raised in a trailer park in El Cajon, Calif., north of San Diego. With a background in motocross and off-road racing, Johnson was a late bloomer who moved to pavement racing 15 years ago and was a "C-class driver," winning one NASCAR race before entering Cup in 2002 after being plucked from obscurity by four-time champion Gordon.

"I just hope the fans now really believe — the naysayers of Jimmie," said his dad, Gary Johnson, who carried a dozen championship caps as he left the stage Sunday. "You can't say he's not great.

"Now we're going for a six-pack. We need a beer sponsor."

Different mind-set

Johnson is not as famous for an off-track persona that includes being a wild partier, but he sometimes comes across as wooden in interviews after a lifetime of learning that politically correct speed pleases the sponsors who fund the sport.

His public demeanor, though, seemed to change last week as he entered the finale behind. It was a first during his five title runs, yet he seemed looser than ever.

At a Thursday news conference, he needled Hamlin about feeling the pressure ("I'm just trying to remind Denny he has everything to lose. Nothing to fret about, Denny"). Johnson played the trash-talking role of Muhammad Ali to such a T, veteran Jeff Burton compared the title battle to a heavyweight fight. Hamlin's crew chief, Mike Ford, took shots at the Hendrick organization after a win, leading Knaus to say after Sunday's race, "Our team and organization is better than what they've got at (Joe) Gibbs (Racing). Just the facts."

Normally polished but somewhat reserved in interviews, Johnson cracked jokes with the news media Friday before outqualifying Hamlin and Harvick. Before the race, he smiled as he cradled 4-month-old daughter, Genevieve Marie.

"It was fun to not be worried about the championship," he said. "We didn't have to protect (a lead). It completely changed my mind-set."

ESPN analyst Ray Evernham said it might change fans' minds.

"This could be the championship that really makes everyone appreciate Jimmie Johnson," said Evernham, a three-time championship-winning crew chief. "Everyone says it's been too easy. Now we see Jimmie fight for it and doing in-your-face stuff.

"But it's going to be hard to be the greatest ever because of Petty and Earnhardt. In the end, it's about numbers."

Sunday was mostly about emotions for Johnson, who called his fifth title the sweetest and said he soaked in the experience — even with the so-called "haters of the 48" who boo him during driver introductions and victory lane celebrations.

As Johnson climbed onto a stage for a Speed interview on the front straightaway, he got a thumbs up from someone wearing an "I hate the 48" T-shirt, and dozens of fans pressed up against the nearby catchfence. "Come on, get rowdy!" Johnson played to whoops from the crowd.

Later, he said he appreciated the reaction but ultimately didn't need it to feel better because his achievement would be respected sports-wide. "It's tough for fans to appreciate what we accomplish," he said. "They want their guy to win. People tell me they hate me, but they respect me. That's always cool."

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