The Frontstretch: Best of: Holding a Pretty Wheel - Hate the 48? It's Totally Undeserved by Amy Henderson -- Thursday July 5, 2007

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Editor’s note: This week while writer Amy Henderson is taking a a breather, we revisit her very first “Holding a Pretty Wheel” column that debuted in December 2006. Look for a brand new column from Amy next Friday.

In the weeks since this year's Nextel Cup championship was decided in favor of Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team, I've heard a lot of people complain about him. The reasons why are as diverse as the crowd of Manhattanites currently welcoming the world’s fastest growing sport on wheels for the yearly awards banquet. Some people say Johnson cheats (Get over it; the team served the penalty NASCAR assessed – if you don't like it, complain about the rules). Others say he's too politically correct. He's too much like Jeff Gordon. He wins too much (bet Johnson doesn't care if you don't like that, either – if you compete at anything, you know there is no such thing as "winning too much." He's had everything handed to him. He's too perfect, too unemotional.

There are a lot of race fans who share those last two opinions. That really is too bad, because their opinion of the champ is so far off base, they're in center field. Johnson never had anything handed to him. He had to learn at an early age how to play nice with the sponsors – or he wouldn't race. So, he was always polite and always said what the potential sponsor needed to hear. That’s not arrogance – that’s done out of necessity, to get the big break in today’s NASCAR, where money trumps talent nine times out of ten. And Johnson has spent a long time on the phone this week, making sure he's thanked everyone who has helped him along the way. That doesn’t sound like arrogance to me.

Johnson didn't grow up with a racing career on a silver platter for the taking. In fact, he probably grew up a lot more like you or I than some of his competitors. He spent his childhood in southern California – the gritty, desert, wind-in-your face part of southern California, not the soft, palm-lined, ocean breeze southern California that many people think of. Raising a family in a trailer park, Dad Gary worked construction and drove trucks, and Mom Cathy drove a bus to pay the bills and make sure that their three boys had a little something extra when they could. That something was motorcycles; for Jimmie, it was also the first taste of racing…and of winning. He liked that winning feeling and never forgot that racing – and winning – was fun at its very core. Getting hurt didn't deter Johnson, either – he had knee surgery while most kids his age just skinned theirs. In fact, his father was often more fazed at Jimmie's ER escapades than he was. It wasn't unusual to see them both on gurneys – young Jimmie reeling from a racing injury, as well as father Gary, fainting from having to look at Jimmie's racing injury.

When it was time for the next step in Johnson's racing career, his family simply could not finance it, so the prodigal racing son learned to make contacts and then keep them interested, both by winning and by talking. He had to be respectful and polite to ensure the funding to race. But it wasn't an act – just a young kid being sincere and grasping at his dream. Johnson once co-drove 500 miles at Baja being sick in the car the whole time, because he wasn't about to give up this chance, lest it not come by again. Even then, he was racing every lap as if each opportunity was his last. Nothing in Johnson's career has been handed to him so much as Johnson has reached out and held on tight until he couldn't be denied.

Unemotional, you say? That criticism is aimed at the same kid who jumped onto the roof of his car after a hard crash in celebration, in gratitude that he was just happy to be alive? It’s aimed at the driver who wept in Victory Lane back in 2004, all because he was able to pay tribute to some dear friends he'd lost in a plane crash? Unemotional is tagged to the same person whose charitable foundation is dedicated to kids and families and animals? Who took the ultimate jab at his detractors when he dedicated his Daytona 500 win to them? I've never understood that label…not on Johnson.

Does Jimmie forget himself and rant and rave at NASCAR or his competitors? Not often. Every once in awhile, he'll express an immediate disappointment of the moment in a quiet voice; usually, he’ll apologize for it later. Don't mistake that for unemotional – it isn't. Self-consciousness, yes. Johnson does often seem to possess a small fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. That isn't lack of emotion; if anything, it's an overabundance of it. And every once in awhile, he forgets himself. Usually, it's on the team radio in a jumble of angry words – just the driver venting to his crew chief. But sometimes, it just boils over. When Robby Gordon dumped Johnson at Bristol a few years ago, Johnson stomped onto the track and told him in no uncertain terms who was "number one." With both hands. But those instances are few and far between.

Johnson has certainly faced his share of losses to racing, and he's borne them with grace. His best friend was killed in a crash at Lowe's Motor Speedway just hours after Johnson qualified for his very first Cup race. He raced through his grief that weekend, sometimes crying quietly in the car between practice laps, caught between his dream and a cruel reality. Johnson won at Martinsville only to go from the rush of winning to the searing pain of loss within a matter of minutes when the team was informed of the Hendrick Motorsports plane crash that killed ten of their friends and teammates. He spoke sadly at a press conference the following week and then went out and gave the best tribute he know how – winning that race. He sat in his racecar for a long time in Victory Lane, sharing a tearful phone call with Rick Hendrick and then fiddling with his drink and sunglasses, trying to pull himself together enough to speak to the waiting throng.

And when he won the championship he’s dreamed of since he was a little boy? Johnson clearly relished every moment. He hugged everyone in sight when he got out of his car at Homestead – including the Nextel Cup trophy… especially the Nextel Cup trophy. His voice shook with gratitude. During a photo shoot in New York City this week, he climbed onto a light pole at 48th and 1st and swung on the “Don’t Walk” sign like an exuberant kid. The smile hasn’t left his face all week long.

Johnson wears his heart on his sleeve. He may not say everything that goes through his mind, ala Earnhardt, Jr. or Tony Stewart – that's not his style. Rather, his emotions are in his actions and in his eyes. It's a more subtle display than forgetting himself and saying certain four-letter words on TV or climbing fences in victory celebration; but don't mistake Johnson's polished words for not feeling anything stronger. The emotion is always there… if you look past the surface. It’s never disappeared; not since he was just some unknown kid in underfunded equipment, and not now, when Johnson has the best cars and crew money can buy – a ride that he worked his whole life to get.

Johnson will no doubt be a good champion for NASCAR. He'll say and do the right thing the vast majority of the time, and he's truly a nice person to boot. Of course, fans will still dislike Johnson for being too nice, too perfect, too successful, too employed by Jeff Gordon. But to dislike him for being overprivileged and underemotional? That's a mistake…because it isn't true.

This driver is worth a second look.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Beyond the Cockpit: Alexis DeJoria On The 300 mph Women of the NHRA
A Swan’s Broken Wings Equal NASCAR’s Next Concern?
Thinkin’ Out Loud – The Off Week Season Review
Pace Laps: Swan Racing’s Future, Fast Females and Dropping Out
Sprint Cup Series Facilities Can Build Upon Fan Experience by Looking to Their Roots


©2000 - 2008 Amy Henderson and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

07/06/2007 08:02 AM

Why don’t I like Jimmie Johnson?

I didn’t have an opinion of him until that race, but his refusal to acknowledge that he basically wrecked out half the field really rubbed me the wrong way. Add Knaus’ constant hijinks to that, and there you go.

You could write an article like this about any driver who has haters, how they’re good guys, how they’re charitable and respectful and whatnot. However, it’s the passion that fans have for (and against) drivers and teams is what makes this sport great, and so undeserved or not, I won’t apologize for being a ‘hater’. The alternative is having any non-Jr driver (and quite frankly, would Jr be as popular as he is without the rival dynamic of a Gordon/Johnson?) win and the crowd responding by a smattering of applause and forgetting about it for the rest of the week, which doesn’t sound very interesting to me.

07/06/2007 08:28 AM

I’m glad that fans are so loyal to their drivers. You’re right, I COULD write a column like this on almost all of them, because I like and respect almost all of them!

However, a couple of things just for the record. One, Jimmie HAS, repeatedly, taken the blame for that incident. It’s never easy to do that in the heat of the moment, but Jimmie came around as soon as he saw the video and has acknowledged his role n the crash many times. Two, while Knaus DOES have his reputation for a reason, two points to ponder: the 48 car has NEVER been found with an illegal part, only legal parts used in less-than-pristine ways, and in the last five years, he doesn’t even have the most penalties for infractions-Todd Berrier does. You can even look it up. Just a little food for thought this morning :)

07/06/2007 09:43 AM

Very nice to read again Amy! I love how people bring up the Talladega incident as their only reason for disliking Jimmie. It’s funny because he has taken the responsibility for that over and over and over….He even said that he wanted to wait to see the replay before saying anything. Once he did, he accepted responsibility. JJ is a wonderful guy with a great sense of humor and is really likable.

07/06/2007 01:06 PM

Johnson doesn’t stir anything in me. He is like so many others in NASCAR racing. He is bland, no personality, and no color. He just drives a racecar for a living. Just like most of the other drivers, he doesn’t seem to have a love for racing. It appears to be simply a path to a pretty wife and alot of money.

07/07/2007 02:02 PM

Go, Jimmie! hey, i’m a Jr fan, but give the guy what he deserves … and that’s not a bunch of crap. would people still “hate” him if he wasn’t Gordon’s teammate (or clone, to some), if he didn’t have HMS supplying his parts, if ………. the list could go on. Jimmie, i applaud you and will continue to … until you’re side-by-side with Jr, but that’s another story!

jo smelser
07/09/2007 01:17 PM

i agree with ED!!
I did’t like jimmy, in asa,and i don’t like him nowi was a no.# 1 fan of jr’s,but now that he has gone over to hendrick, i have thrown him with jimmy and jeff! I AM A KYLE BUSH FAN NOW!!!


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
Fans To Decide Format of Sprint Unlimited at Daytona
UNOH and Kentucky Speedway Extend Sponsorship Agreement
Earnhardt Out For Charlotte and Kansas After Talldega Concussion
Piquet, Jr. Wins K&N East Opener

Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.