Little fanfare for Johnson’s run toward NASCAR history

  • By Liz Clarke Washington Post
  • Saturday, November 21, 2009 4:32pm
  • SportsSports

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Barring a blown engine or a multi-car melee that snares his seemingly charmed Chevrolet, Jimmie Johnson will win a fourth consecutive NASCAR championship Sunday — a feat never achieved by the legendary Richard Petty, the late Dale Earnhardt or any other driver to strap into a stock car.

In most sports, such dynasties rouse fans’ passions, spurring hosannas and hate in equal measure.

But Johnson’s history-making moment — which he’ll achieve by finishing 25th or better in the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway — is largely being met with indifference by casual sports fans and a measure of irritation by many ardent NASCAR fans who’ve grown weary of his spot-on performances down the stretch.

It rankles NASCAR President Brian France, who has long argued that stock-car racing is the nation’s most “under-covered” sport.

“Jimmie’s on the cusp of a dynasty of four in a row,” France says. “If this were any other sport, it would be a bigger story.”

And it puzzles Johnson’s fellow racers, who say NASCAR’s three-time defending champion doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

“Four championships in a row?” muses an awestruck Brian Vickers, a former teammates of Johnson’s at Hendrick Motorsports. “I don’t know what it is about our sport, but you go watch Tiger Woods play golf, Roger Federer in tennis, or you watch the Yankees win another World Series, it is just celebrated throughout the industry and (viewed as) an opportunity to see the best at the best and to see the best win multiple times in a row.

“For some reason, when that happens in our industry, everyone asks, ‘What’s wrong?’ “

Johnson and his No. 48 race team have been nothing short of remarkable this season.

After finishing 31st in the season-opening Daytona 500, Johnson worked his way into the top 10 of the standings after five races. After 11 races he was inside the top five. And once again he saved his best work for the sport’s 10-race postseason, winning four of its nine races to date to carry a 108-point lead over his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin into Sunday’s finale.

Nonetheless, his heroics haven’t garnered broad acclaim.

Veteran radio host Pat Patterson, who fields calls from NASCAR fans 52 weekends a year, estimates that 70 percent of his callers this fall voiced frustration over Johnson’s march toward a fourth consecutive Sprint Cup championship and the ninth over all for Hendrick Motorsports, which fields Chevrolets for a star-studded stable that includes Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., in addition to Johnson and Martin.

For starters, in a sport that celebrates the grit and guile of the common man, Johnson, 34, is perceived as a fortunate son.

He says it’s an undeserved rap.

“Nothing has come easy for me my entire life,” Johnson said at Phoenix International Raceway this month, after winning his seventh race of the season. “I don’t expect the fan appeal — some of this perception stuff — to come easy. I’ve always had to earn it.”

And while corporate sponsors delight in Johnson’s sterling comportment on and off the track, traditional NASCAR fans often fault him for being too polished and politically correct. They tend to prefer more polarizing drivers — guys who raise a little hell once in a while.

“We’re watching racing, and it’s actually better racing than we’ve ever had, statistically speaking,” measured by the number of lead changes and cars that finish races on the lead lap, Patterson said. “But people want to be part of the people who are driving the racecars. People aren’t in love with NASCAR; they’re in love with the people who race in NASCAR.”

Moreover, down the stretch of this season, Johnson hasn’t had a true foil. Instead, he has teammates.

The top three drivers in the standings entering Sunday’s finale — Johnson, Martin and Gordon — all drive Chevrolets built by the 500-plus employees of Hendrick Motorsports. Their respective crew chiefs share technical data about their cars, just as the drivers share insights into their cars’ setups.

Of the bunch, only Martin has a mathematical chance of denying Johnson the title. But their joint press conference last week was devoid of any competitive fire between them, as Johnson and Martin, joined by team owner Rick Hendrick, spent much of the time lauding each other’s achievements.

“You are one of the greatest,” Johnson told Martin, 50, who has finished second for NASCAR’s title four times. “We all think the world of your and respect the hell out of you.”

On the eve of the championship’s decisive battle, it had the surreal quality of a weigh-in before a Las Vegas title fight at which the world’s top heavyweights complimented each other’s physique.

Then there is the issue of the racecar itself.

Many sports fans aren’t convinced NASCAR drivers are athletes, given that it’s the finely turned 800-horsepower engine that propels the winning car across the finish line.

Even among seasoned NASCAR fans, it’s unclear where Johnson’s skill ends and the savvy of crew chief Chad Knaus begins. Paired throughout their three championships, Johnson and Knaus routinely credit each other for every victory they claim.

Who, then, is the true genius?

It’s an age-old question, says Jeff Burton, who drives for Richard Childress Racing.

“They say the same thing about everybody that wins championships: ‘He’s driving for the best team,’” Burton said. “I don’t think your generation ever gives you the credit you deserve. (But) I don’t think there’s any way you can dismiss (Johnson’s) ability.”

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