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Minter: Humpy Assesses Jimmie

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, November 21 2009
Humpy Wheeler still tells Rick Minter of RacinToday what he thinks of Jimmie Johnson. (RacinToday file photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Humpy Wheeler tells Rick Minter of RacinToday what he thinks of Jimmie Johnson. Wheeler even has a nickname for Johnson. (RacinToday file photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Ever since he began to dominate the Sprint Cup Series, media members and fans and others have been trying to figure out what to think about Jimmie Johnson. Some say he’s too clean cut, too vanilla, too non-controversial to suit the average NASCAR fan. Others don’t seem to give him the credit he deserves for his accomplishments, which are quite impressive – 47 career wins, 18 of them in Chase races while his closest challengers in Chase events, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, have just six Chase wins apiece.

Some say he’s got it easy, driving a car prepared by the best crew chief in racing, Chad Knaus, and that he works for Hendrick Motorsports, the most powerful multi-car team in the garage. Of course they don’t seem to factor in that others like Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman also have Hendrick equipment under them but don’t get Johnson-like results.

Johnson is different from other recent champions. He’s no Southern good ‘ol boy like Bill Elliott. He’s not had the rivalries like Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon once had. In many ways, Johnson is more of a throwback to some earlier champions like Tim Flock and Herb Thomas, great drivers whose abundant skills made winning races look easy.

It took checking in with the wise old sage of the NASCAR world, long-time promoter H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, to find explanations that fit like a tailored driving glove.

“We watch with awe when Tiger Woods chips in from 40 feet, when Reggie Bush cuts inside tackle and goes 50 yards for a touchdown,” Wheeler said. “With Jimmy, you can’t see his brilliance. When he goes 300 feet deeper into the corner at Atlanta, when he passes his teammate Jeff Gordon, when he leads 80 percent of the race, it doesn’t register with us. He makes it look so easy.”

Wheeler said that wasn’t the case with other great drivers in fairly recent NASCAR history.

“[Dale] Earnhardt Sr. would skid, slide, bump, cuss and rim ride, and we could see it,” he said. “Darrell Waltrip would wrangle, ramble and rock Rusty (Wallace) and describe with glee how he whipped everybody and predict he would do it again next week.

“Jimmy….he just gets on his horse, looking like a ’50s movie star, and rides better than any living soul. When he wins, he acts like it was all in a day’s work. When someone tries to spin him out, he takes it and just outruns them and says nothing later.”

Wheeler points out that Johnson is a lot like Tim Flock, who won 39 races and two championships in just 187 career starts. Johnson has gotten his 47 victories and three titles in 290 starts. Herb Thomas also comes to mind, as Thomas has 48 race victories and two titles in just 228 career starts.

“If I didn’t know better I’d swear (Johnson) was a Flock,” Wheeler said. “He drives like Tim did, smooth but very fast, and he never wrecks…I wish ol’ Tim was still around because he would have loved to seen Jimmy drive.

“History will record him as one of the best, not the guy who signed the most autographs or sold the most souvenirs but just plain great in an almost invisible way. Maybe that should be his nickname: ‘The Invisible Man That Everyone Sees But Doesn’t.’ ”

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

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, November 21 2009
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