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Thomas Bowles · Sunday April 24, 2005
No question about it, the 2005 Nextel Cup season can be broken down into three categories, despite the defending champ’s win on Saturday: Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, and everyone else. Biffle has arguably been the most dominant on the track, leading all drivers in laps led, but has suffered from poor pit strategy and mechanical problems, ultimately causing a slip in the standings. Meanwhile, Johnson has taken advantage, using NASCAR’s point system to lap the field with his incredible consistency. His streak of 13 Top 10 finishes, which came to an end this Saturday in Phoenix, has been well documented. We’re only eight races into the season, but Johnson already has a 173-point lead over defending champion Kurt Busch in second place, and leads 10th-place Rusty Wallace by 300 points. At the rate we’re going, the 9th and 10th-place finishers won’t deserve to have their points reset for the Chase after race 26, as they could be as many as 900 or 1,000 points behind the 48 car.
But things aren’t all peachy over in Jimmie-land. Coming into this season, Johnson had developed an excellent image as a clean-cut, All-American guy, a personable driver with an easygoing personality, newly married with a beautiful wife. But most importantly, Johnson was looked at as a “clean,” respected driver; someone you could race side-by-side or in front of without a worry in the world of being run over.
But that reputation is being challenged. For the first time, Johnson is becoming the center of attention for some questionable on-track incidents, threatening his “good guy” image that had thrust him into a world of overwhelming popularity. At Bristol, some aggressive driving by Johnson appeared to be the cause of a back-straightaway wreck that took out Jeff Burton and defending champion Kurt Busch. Burton, usually a cool customer, was so angry he walked up the track and expressed his displeasure to Johnson as he passed by, just before walking to the ambulance for the obligatory trip to the infield care center. Busch’s bell was rung by a hard impact with Burton, but he also wasted no time in expressing his anger towards Johnson’s driving style after exiting the infield care center shortly after the incident.
This week, we had more of the same. Johnson started going at it with NASCAR’s resident hothead, Tony Stewart, shortly past the halfway point of Saturday’s race at Phoenix. A back-and-forth battle of rubbing fenders, it ended with the 48 punting the 20 heading into Turn 3. A five-car pileup ensued, effectively ending the chances of contenders Stewart, Rusty Wallace, and several others to grab solid finishes. Meanwhile, Johnson drove away unscathed for the second time in two major incidents.
While Wallace was pretty matter-of-fact in his statements about the matter (“The 48 punted the 20” was among his post-race comments), Stewart was a little more upset.
“I don’t know what he (Johnson) was doing,” Stewart said. “He was running guys up and down the racetrack. He about ran (Dale Earnhardt) Junior into the wall…and then he finally put me backwards. So I don’t know what was wrong with him tonight.”
While Johnson’s night wasn’t exactly stellar after that (he finished 15th), the fact remains he was able to finish the race, while several competitors finished the night in the garage after a wreck he started. This was similar to what happened at Bristol, where Johnson finished solidly in the Top 10 while Busch and Burton had their days ended by their crash.
Now, this article isn’t meant to bash Jimmie Johnson. Two incidents does not a reckless driver make, especially not with Johnson’s track record. Not only that, but one of these situations occurred at Bristol, which creates wrecks more quickly then the blink of an eye.
Still, there’s a point to make here. Johnson’s leading the points, which puts him under greater scrutiny than most drivers. Every move he makes is going to grab some media coverage, and when he makes a mistake, he deserves to be scrutinized for it. Add to the wrecks the rules violation at Las Vegas which cost the team 25 points (and nearly cost them Chad Knaus for 2 weeks) and it’s clear the image of Johnson has taken a hit. Fans usually referred to Johnson as a Brady Bunch-like aw-shucks clean-cut driver; now, it seems Carl Edwards is rapidly filling that role, while fans struggle to figure out where Johnson fits in the grand scheme of things. As Johnson’s teammate Jeff Gordon has found out through the years, fans can turn on you for any reason, any time, and by not being more humble in admitting his mistakes in either incident, Johnson is risking alienating a fan base that took time and energy to build.
And no doubt about it, those wrecks were some pretty big mistakes. Johnson has now “crossed” not one but two drivers likely to be involved in this year’s Chase: Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart. Burton and Wallace were also upset, but they aren’t known to hold a grudge; both Busch and Stewart, on the other hand, have known how to give a payback when the time is right. And while Johnson could apologize until he’s blue in the face, nothing can take back the fact that he took potential Top 5 finishes away from both. Simply put, you don’t want to anger people racing for a yearlong trophy that will make you do anything to engrave your name on.
The best part of all this is Johnson doesn’t need to be driving so aggressively. Sure, as a race car driver you’re going to constantly be gunning to win the race, and pass any driver you can if you have a good car. But by the way Johnson has already separated himself from the rest of the Nextel Cup field this season, battling with Tony Stewart heavy and heated with 100 laps to go in the race may not be so smart in the grand scheme of things, when Johnson can settle in behind and easily protect his comfortable point lead. At Bristol, Johnson had the same experience. Had he been a little more patient, he would have easily finished in nearly the same spot he ended up in, while saving two drivers totalled race cars and extreme frustration.
Last year, Johnson’s team led the points as well but peaked too early, and had an inevitable string of bad luck just before the Chase come back to bite them. This year, if Johnson isn’t careful, he’ll be bit by bad luck of a different kind. It’s amazing what a small tap to the rear bumper can do, especially when it’s time for a payback with the Nextel Cup Trophy on the line.
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If this had been the 48 and the 6, or the 48 and the 07, I would believe that it was all JJ’s fault. Since it involves one of the more notorious drivers, famous for making stupid mistakes when angry himself, I’m willing to cut JJ some slack.
But I know that’s something that many people won’t do regardless, because they’re predisposed to not like Jimmie, some because he drives for HMS, others because the 48 is clearly the team to beat right now.
both incidents resulted in not just one car, but MULTIPLE cars being wrecked. And not the agressor’s…
Earnhardt was famous for this—- and the reason that just as many fans “hated” him as “loved” him. Jimmie won’t lose all of his fans, and will probably gain some new ones. But, this fact remains…if you own up to what you do, then people respect you. If you have a “it’s not my fault” attitude, the fans, and more importantly, the other drivers, will lose respect for you.
Could it be that NASCAR is playing favorites????You betcha!!!That is exactly what is happening.
BTW, the 2 drivers involved in the incident I mentioned were Dale Earnhardt & Rusty Wallace. Earnhardt was penalized one lap for spinning Rusty out at Bristol. He did come back to finish 2nd to Terry Labonte and that was before the day of the “FREE PASS” which NASCAR seems to be sure goes to the drivers “THEY” want to get.
What happened at Phoenix, to me, was not intentional, but the way Jimmie reacted was uncalled for. He even said on his radio that Tony “deserved it.” Oh, really?
And don’t forget that Jimmie got into Tony at Daytona this year, so it’s not just two incidents.
But someone here mentioned how Dale Earnhardt may have caused his fair share of wrecks, but generally owned up to it…JJ doesn’t seem to want to admit that he could have made a mistake. I was of the segment of fans who loved to hate Earnhardt…but I respected him. JJ hasn’t done much in my mind in these incidents recently to earn my respect. Not entirely because of the incidents themselves, but because of his reaction to them.
Someone pointed out they wouldn’t want to see false humility out of him, taking the blame for everything, like some other drivers do. That’s fine, I agree, it would just look fake on him. But every time he DOES admit he did something wrong, he always qualifies it: “I got into __ accidentally, I’m really sorry, but he was running me all over the track, giving me the finger and…”
Quit qualifying things, JJ. Just admit you made a mistake, and move on!!
Feel better Josh? Not all women are defending Jimmie! ;)
FYI, we’ve been discussing this on the message board, too…thank God for race incidents, they make the time between races go by all the faster!! :)
It’s part of what makes being a racing fan so much fun: it’s okay if my guy does it to you but if you do it to my guy…lol.
I like the debating and the contention. I’m kinda scared of the folks who take it all too seriously but they’re few and we get to mock them!
On to Talladega! I wonder who’ll be zoomin’ who? *g*
The message from NASCAR is clear… the Hendrick teams are allowed to live by a different set of rules…cheating is ok, punting other cars is ok….just ask JJ—he’ll tell you “it wasn’t my fault. I would never do that.”
But then again, why should NASCAR waste their time punishing a Hendrick team… Hendrick teams just have to go cry to the appeal board and get their punishment overturned anyway.
watches all the races and we have lost all respect for Jimmy. He is not acting like championship material. Nascar lets him get away
with everthing even let him win his appeal for cheating. I sure hope this week the drivers gang up on him and send him to the garage….
Secondly, yes racing accidents happen. When they do, it’s not hard to say it’s my fault. I am not a junior fan by any strecth, but when he clipped the back of Vickers and wrecked both cars, the first thing he did is apologize to vickers for being a little too agressive. It wasn’t intentional, but the 8 knew he could of avoided it. And it is already forgotten because of a simple “My Fault”
He saw how Kurt was doing at Bristol & how Kurt & Tony was doing at Phoenix & the possible threat of working on his (JJ) point lead. What is he going to do hit every top driver who is a threat (except for his boss AKA other top cry baby Jeff). JJ hasn’t even tried to come near his boss. If he did Jeff might give him a fine & not tell NASCAR or the world. I’m not a Kurt Busch fan but, he & Tony need to teach the (BOY) what he(JJ,JEFF Gordon)call a racing incident.
Moving on, Jimmie was confused when the incident with Tony happened. He wasn’t sure what Tony was doing and he even said to his spotter, someone go tell him I would never intentionally wreck someone.
Tony and Jimmie are good buddies..as said by Tony and Jimmie themselves. And Tony is not stupid enough to “get Jimmie back” in the last 10, because, I’m sure, Nascar will be watching closely as they did last year and gave warnings to everyone about taking out any top ten drivers..even taking out each other. And Tony’s not a dirty driver either. I am also a Tony fan.
Also, would everyone please stop referring to the Burton thing? That was taken care after the Bristol race and already forgotten. Jimmie owned up to that..did he not???
Some people just need to grow up.
It was an accident. Maybe Tony helped – or maybe Jimmie just couldn’t get on the breaks hard enough.
People really need to get over it. I’m sure the drivers have already sorted it out between themselves. There isn’t quite all the drama that a lot of people think.
Dale Sr. & Jeff Gordon at least had the balls to say “Yeah I hit him and he can come talk to me later”. Jimmie Johnson has got into Harvick, Burton and Stewart, in just 8 races and none were his fault. Those incidents also took out several cars that were capable of good finishes. Jimmie needs grow some balls and admit his mistakes or retaliations. JJ, be a man or go race with Shawna Robinson
Just wanted to thank everyone for posting their thoughts. What a great response, although I know there are some of you who disagree…I will try and answer every one of these comments as quickly as I can, hopefully by tomorrow night I will have gotten back to you all.
Our Mirror Driving column also touches on this issue. It runs on Wednesdays and is on the main page; check it out!
p.s. Rusty is still WHINNING !
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