Johnson Also Winning Respect In Wake Of No. 6
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Jimmie Johnson’s 2013 Sprint Cup Championship had a familiar look and feel to it. It was much like his first five. But championship No. 6 did have a different sound to it.
As he unbuckled, unhooked and squeezed from his car after the season-ending, championship-deciding race at Homestead-Miami Speedway last weekend, the reaction from fans seemed louder and more enthusiastic than in the past.
It was certainly more positive.
As was his reception nationally in the hours and days after that.
A couple of days after Homestead, Johnson was asked on a teleconference with the media if he thought that he had finally turned the corner when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of what has proven to be a pretty tough racing crowd.
“Potentially,” he said. “There was a lot of cheering, through all the social channels, a lot of respect being shown for the 48 (Hendrick Motorsports team). I can’t tell you how many things I’ve seen. Not usually cheering for you, but congrats, respect.
“At the end of the day, that’s what I would hope for. People don’t have to be my fan. But I’m a very respectful person. When respect is shown to me or handed out to me, I take that and appreciate it.”
NASCAR Nation’s failure to embrace during Johnson’s five-year run of consecutive championships was unexplainable and explainable all at the same time.
It was unexplainable to those who live in the Nation’s suburbs. Here was a guy who was smart, good looking, articulate and talented. On the track, he drove relatively cleanly and showed respect. The skill with the wheel was terrific – so terrific he made everything look, perhaps, too easy. What’s to hate?
When negativity poured in from the inner core of the nation, it was tough to figure. It was hard to explain.
Except it was explainable. In major American sports, there are very few instant heros. On a national level, it is semi-customary to insist that teams and athletes pay dues and then age like a good cheddar before passing through the portal into American hearts and minds.
It doesn’t seem to matter how good – or even record-setting – athletes are during the early parts of their careers; while they may win the adoration of the locals, fans on the national level are slow to the draw when it comes to affording top status.
Perhaps it’s because sports fans tend to overly romanticize the past that the right-now gets short shrift – even if the right-now is amazing.
In NASCAR, this all seems especially true. Mark Martin was not always universally loved by NASCAR Nation. Nor Darrell Waltrip nor Junior Johnson. Jeff Gordon was certainly not. Even Dale Earnhardt faced tough crowds in his early days. Perhaps the only real exception to the rule has been Dale Earnhardt Jr., who, of course, has benefitted from the family legacy pass.
The NASCAR crowd is tough in other unique ways. There is a large segment that loves the rough edged anti hero. Good looking and well mannered can be draw backs to acceptance.
On a flight into some racing city back the late 1990s, a flight attendant announced final approach. In an attempt at ingratiation, she asked how many on board were Jeff Gordon fans. Very audible above the jeers was one cat yelling, “f—-ing pretty boy!”
Johnson, during his first five championships, has faced, perhaps, even more than the usual amount of disdain. Certainly more disdain than somebody who won five-straight should face. He’s been clubbed over the head by charges of being simply the product of a good team or a rule-bending crew chief. He’s been accused of being nothing but lucky. Some fringe radicals are even saying his team owner has paid off NASCAR officials.
Whatever. The result has been a failure to embrace at a level commensurate with accomplishment.
Then came Homestead 2013.
Johnson seemed a bit startled when he got out of his car and heard cheers. He turned toward the grandstand and issued a wary thank you.
And it has been all-star treatment since. In the media – some wags have actually crowned him the best ever –and from crowd.
Maybe the two-year break between championships did the trick. Or maybe the body of work now just makes it impossible to pooh-pooh.
But it appears Johnson may finally be getting the love he should have started getting after winning two or three championships in a row.
In his teleconference, Johnson kind of got nostalgic about his past relationship with his sport’s fans.
“I can remember when I was racing the Nationwide Series, we were with Excedrin for a sponsorship,” he said. “I can remember sitting outside of numerous convenience stores around the country as my sponsor obligations under a pop-up tent with autograph cards, samples, trying to pass them out to people. They thought I worked for Excedrin and wondered where the race car driver was.
“Things have changed a lot since then. Once I started and was a part of the Hendrick group, things started early for me. I was still in the Nationwide Series when Jeff and Rick signed me. I quickly inherited a lot of Jeff Gordon fans. If Jeff was going to pick me, they were going to be a fan of me as well.
“Over time that changed. I think a large majority of Jeff Gordon fans despise me because of the success I’ve had. Things always evolve and turn and twist.
“It was in that period of time once I picked up my contract with Hendrick, I assumed a large fan base at that point in time.”
The fan base is much larger today.
And it will be very interesting in 2014 to see how that base reacts to Johnson in his pursuit of winning a seventh championship – one which would tie him with mega icons Richard Petty and Earnhardt Sr. as the best ever.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgOne Comment