Jimmie Johnson, even after all of these years, all the wins and all of this jaw-dropping success, still can't catch a break from a large part of NASCAR's fanbase.
It's an incredible thing to ponder, really.
Johnson is a NASCAR poster-child racer from California that drove anything anywhere before he finally got his big break. He didn't ride a gift horse to NASCAR town, and didn't take out a silver spoon when he got there. Johnson—thanks to his dogged pursuit and unreal driving ability—has made what he's received.
It makes the routine disdain for his routine winning more than a little puzzling. The revulsion spews seemingly without end from a lot of fans and their corresponding social media accounts at a heavy clip. Of course, actual Johnson fans—like one who drew Johnson's attention on Twitter before the Daytona win that was playing a drinking game triggered by every lap Johnson led—have to love it all the more.
Johnson's NASCAR domination all started so innocently, in the backyard of Johnson's house. The start of NASCAR's most successful current driver—and perhaps its greatest ever—happened sometime before Johnson's full-time debut in Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 in 2002.
There was a beer. There was a horseshoe pit. And there was Chad Knaus, standing in Johnson's lawn as a longtime Hendrick employee who left for a while but who was now back to crew chief Johnson's operation. Jeff Gordon had put the thing together, taken half-ownership and somehow the whole Hendrick team convinced major sponsor Lowe's to defect a veteran team for this unknown commodity.
"There was just something there that worked," Johnson said, possibly delivering one of NASCAR's largest understatements of all time. He said that line after becoming the first driver to sweep both of Daytona's races in 31 years. The last guy to do it is now a NASCAR Hall of Famer.
Of course—using Johnson's words—it has worked. It's worked to a NASCAR-record five consecutive titles. It's worked to a career winning average of .153—a number awfully impressive considering Johnson has the pleasure of "playing" 43 other teams in each start. And it's worked to boos and cheating accusations when he takes another checkered flag.
For Johnson, it's the puzzling game of winning where it counts—trophies, money and titles—while appearing to be forever relegated to hotheaded fan accusations of impropriety or just general disregard for the way he goes about his winning. In reality, it's probably just that winning thing: fans grow tired of a driver who does it too much.
Just ask Jeff Gordon. The anti-Dale Earnhardt won so much and so often in the 1990's that raucous grandstand cheers would erupt when he wrecked. T-shirts simply reading "Fans Against Gordon" with the capital letters prominently enlarged were a routine sight.
Earnhardt faced it too during his career, as did Darrell Waltrip and any other driver who "won too much" during a given period. It's likely no different than fans who despise franchises like the New York Yankees for their spend-to-win tactics (Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports team is routinely assessed as the most valuable in NASCAR) that have secured the most titles in baseball history.
Or, to be a bit more relevant on an individual level, Johnson's case is similar to LeBron James. No, Johnson has never made a PR blunder quite like James' move to Miami. But Johnson has developed the routine and regular condescension from fans of other drivers who will look for about anything to disparage his success. James' two NBA titles have started to quiet the contrarians, however. Johnson's five titles have only fired up their NASCAR counterparts.
Perhaps it's just the way of sports and sports fans that lead to the uncomplimentary treatment of Johnson's success. Johnson, after all, is a long, long way from being labeled a bad guy. He's a gracious winner, a calculating and often fair competitor and has developed an extensive foundation that routinely donates large sums to education, natural disasters or other initiatives.
Whatever the root, most of the distaste for Johnson seems largely either inaccurate or unfounded. Either way, it's not affecting him. At 64 wins and counting in 12 years of full-time racing, a slowdown isn't imminent.
But Johnson will retire some day and move out of the NASCAR spotlight—just as Waltrip did, just as Michael Jordan did. Perhaps that will lead to a lens change for fans that couldn't stand Johnson's active career. Perhaps then they'll realize what a spectacle and treat Johnson is providing.
Quotes used in the article unless otherwise noted were obtained from NASCAR transcription services.
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