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Minter: Soft-Spoken Jimmie Has Lots To Say

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 5 2009
Jimmie Johnson has apparently been tweaking his image as Sprint Cup's dullest driver. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Jimmie Johnson has apparently been tweaking his image as Sprint Cup's dullest driver. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

In the press box and media center at Talladega Superspeedway last Sunday, reporters had the opportunity, as is NASCAR’s custom, to interview the race winner as well as the second-and third-place drivers and the top rookie. And since the race was in the Chase, points-leader Jimmie Johnson was also brought in for questioning.

As my RacinToday.com colleague Jeff Hood remarked afterward, it was a good thing Johnson was added to the line-up: Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano were nice and polite, as they usually are, but their answers were, shall we say “vanilla.”

It’s unlikely you read much of what they said anywhere. Their comments just didn’t give writers much to work with.

Ironically, it was the driver often labeled as “boring” and “vanilla” who offered the strongest remarks of the four, saying among other things, that the only fix for the problems that come with restrictor-plate racing is to bulldoze the turns of the race track, making it a place where drivers have to let off the gas entering the turns.

Many other drivers feel that way, as they often say in private conversations with the media, but for whatever reason choose not to take a public stand. Consider Mark Martin’s lack of comment after his roll-over crash at the end of the race. His comment about what he saw in the wreck was “nothing.” He later offered an opinion that he thought Jamie McMurray won the race. Not the kind of words one can build a story around.

Johnson, on the other hand, has become one of the drivers who can be counted to weigh in often and honestly on a variety of subjects. It appears to be much different than earlier in his career, when he rarely ventured off into controversial subjects, at least publicly.

On this week’s NASCAR teleconference, Johnson was asked about his relationship with his crew chief Chad Knaus.

He was as open, honest and enlightening as Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jeff Gordon or Jeff Burton or any of the drivers who are generally considered to be givers of good quotes.

Here’s some of what Johnson had to say:

“I would say that the fact that we’re so different really helps. If we both had similar personalities, I think we really would kill one another, so I think over time, the fact that we’re so different but have some similarities and the desire to win and commitment and focus and all those things, and we share the important common things, and the other stuff that really annoys each other, we’re probably more different than any driver/crew chief combination out there, and I think that’s been helpful to us.

“I’m pretty patient; he’s not so patient.  And in more instances I find that – in a normal relationship outside of a working relationship – patience really prevails, and I think my patience and kind of letting him have space at times to blow off steam and reevaluate and things like that is helpful, too.

“At times I feel like I’m a psychologist with all that takes place on the race team and trying to manage emotions.”

He went on to elaborate about the things Knaus does that annoy him.

“I’d say more than anything, it’s when he is on the [pit] box and he’s frustrated that the car is not going anywhere, and he thinks that I’m sitting on some speed and I can just magically make the car go a little faster. Those are the things that frustrate me in the car more than anything. He doesn’t even have to say it.

“I think it was Charlotte maybe, I could just tell in his voice by how he was reading lap times to me, and he got under my skin and I threatened to strangle him. That worked well because he stopped talking and we got our stuff together and came back and won. I am learning how to handle him more and more each year that goes by.”

That kind of openness is rare in a day when drivers and others worry about the fallout from sponsors and team members over seemingly minor issues.

Even though he’s still burdened by his old reputation, it does appear that Johnson is different today. Still fans say they don’t like him. It’s highly possible that what they’re really rejecting is what he represents – the NASCAR of today, with a car they don’t particularly like, a championship format that isn’t for everyone and a lack of passion and personality among the participants.

Maybe fans should begin listening a little closer to Johnson and what he has to say. And maybe they should consider that he made it to the top of the sport without having rich parents to bankroll his racing development and that having some class isn’t something to be held against him.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 5 2009
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