The Frontstretch: NASCAR’s Biggest Problem - Jimmie Johnson by Kurt Smith -- Thursday February 12, 2009

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NASCAR’s Biggest Problem - Jimmie Johnson

Kurt Smith · Thursday February 12, 2009

 

The new car looks and drives like crap. The playoff system is contrived and ridiculous. There isn’t any difference between manufacturers anymore. It’s follow the leader racing every week. Too few teams have a stranglehold on success. The venues are all the same and the classic tracks are disappearing. The drivers are vanilla. The broadcasts are awful.

To read and listen to diatribes from many of us—and yours truly pleads as guilty as anyone—most every disgruntled fan can put a finger on what currently ails NASCAR. Check Jayski every day and you can also usually find someone offering “solutions” to NASCAR’s steadily dropping ratings and attendance numbers. Some suggestions might actually help in practice; some make you wonder where you can get such high-quality ganja.

However, one glaring problem NASCAR has seems to go somewhat unnoticed by the press and blogosphere, even if the problem is often articulated through other means. And there really isn’t much NASCAR can do about it—not that they wouldn’t try.

Jimmie Johnson.

Bruton Smith makes outrageous statements at times and rarely does he leave the press with nothing to quote when he opens his mouth publicly. Still, the Brute was onto something when he suggested that Jimmie Johnson get out of his car and slap someone, even offering to be the one slapped by him. Which, by the way, is Bruton’s best idea to increase attendance yet.

Smith was not serious, of course, that Johnson should alter his persona and risk sponsor trouble in a reckless and public outburst of emotion. But he was making a point in his inimitable way. For three straight years, the Sprint Cup has been lofted every year by a driver who hasn’t been in a fight in turn 3, doesn’t bow or cuss after a victory, doesn’t have a late father who was a legend in the sport, and hasn’t been married to Miss Sprint.

Few drivers in NASCAR history are as calm and measured when the cameras are on as Jimmie Johnson is. So Lowe’s, of course, couldn’t be happier with him, and you can’t blame them, especially given the headaches their biggest competitor had with their outspoken driver once. But Jimmie’s demeanor may also be part of NASCAR’s ratings problem.

NASCAR has a really big problem, three-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

It isn’t that our champion is a robot—far from it. It takes great strength of character to be so even-keeled, especially when one drives a racecar at 180+ MPH at Talladega for a living. It’s that Jimmie’s demeanor makes him appear mechanical. Which, apparently, is fine with him. If you have a problem with how Jimmie Johnson handles himself, he can get on his walkie-talkie and summon crew members to stand next to him holding three Sprint Cups for you. The 48 team has won championships by staying focused in the storm that is the Chase.

Remember Talladega 2006? Jimmie went from second place and ready to challenge for a win to finishing 24th and having his championship hopes severely dented by a teammate with just a little too much lead in his foot. Any driver would have been justified in being angry with Brian Vickers, especially watching him celebrate in victory lane. That had to sting. The most Jimmie would say was to lament being wrecked by a teammate. No denigrating Vickers’s intelligence, no questioning the wisdom of restrictor plates, at least not on television.

That is typical Johnson. His most memorable quote is “this is for all the Johnson haters”. Maybe he could ask Bruton how to get a reaction out of fans.

Jimmie could throw a punch at Kyle Busch today and have a million more fans tomorrow. It might also earn him a group of critics, disdainful of his lapses in judgment of the type one never sees from the likes of Mark Martin or Jeff Burton.

But with no disrespect meant to Mark or Jeff, Jimmie is winning titles. He doesn’t have a long career full of near misses to make him a “sentimental favorite”. Johnson is proof that a driver can race clean, not punch anybody’s lights out and still win championships, when it sometimes seems as though unwillingness to use the bumper to a victory had been part of the problem for Mark Martin. Johnson isn’t an underdog, nor has he ever been since his rookie season. Winning early and often in one’s career has a way of diminishing the hero factor. Ask Jeff Gordon.

And so you hear the complaints from fans about drivers being robotic, sponsor-friendly, too worried about NASCAR’s reaction to haul off and swing at a guy that just wrecked him. Jimmie isn’t always mentioned by name, and others might come to mind, but hell, he’s been the champion for three seasons. Johnson himself once commented that fans complain about drivers being vanilla but then hammer a driver for showing emotion shortly after Carl Edwards went after Matt Kenseth at Martinsville. He expressed concern about what fans really want from drivers, as if a three-time champion should care. (He should, actually, but not that much.)

Another possible reason for the yawns at the mention of the champion’s name is the matter of some doubt that Jimmie Johnson truly is a multiple championship driver, doubts attributed to both the top-notch equipment he drives and to the quick-thinking genius on his pit box. Johnson’s gang of car builders and crew members often overshadow his own skills, literally making him underrated as a driver, even with three Sprint Cups to his name. This doesn’t explain Casey Mears’ or Brian Vickers’ lack of success with capable crew chiefs in Hendrick cars. Or Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s, for that matter—who in the racing world predicted correctly that Junior would have one win in his first year at Hendrick?

The accolades for the builders of equipment and crew chief are unquestionably deserved, but to suggest that anyone could have driven the 48 car to three straight titles is patently absurd. Johnson held off a very pushy Jeff Gordon at Martinsville. Johnson patiently set up Matt Kenseth for a perfect pass at Texas. Johnson kept his car under control and in one piece to win tire-blowing debacles at both Indianapolis and Charlotte…an achievement that names like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart couldn’t manage. Johnson managed to squeeze out every drop of fuel at Phoenix.

Jimmie Johnson has won at Daytona, Darlington, Martinsville, Dover, Richmond, Pocono, and just about every speedway you could name. He hasn’t won at a road course yet, but he certainly has been in contention to. Mediocre drivers don’t win at nearly every type of track. Some drivers excel at plate tracks. Some guys are hired solely for road courses. Most drivers get their first win on a speedway. The best ones can get it done anywhere.

Finally, the paint scheme on the 48 doesn’t help—a dull, unexciting blue with a familiar but unmoving logo from a home improvement store. Only the bright yellow 48 on the side livens it up a bit. Compare it to the flamed black 24, or the bright yellow 18, or the piercing orange 20. Dazzling…the 48 paint scheme is not.

When you add up the dearth of memorable moments outside of the car, the relative ease in winning championships over the last three years (that’s “relative”, as compared to, say, Kurt Busch’s 2004 championship—winning Cup titles is never done with “ease”), the dull blue paint scheme, and the idea that he isn’t any better than anyone else would be in the 48 car, and the sum is that Jimmie Johnson doesn’t help ratings.

There is plenty to dislike about what has happened to NASCAR. There is certainly merit to most of the complaints, most of all about simply the racing itself and where it takes place. I’ve rehashed it plenty in this space and am not going back to that well, at least not today. Give me a few weeks.

But before we attribute the current state of NASCAR entirely to Brian France’s ill-conceived decisions that have rendered NASCAR unrecognizable to those who loved it the most, and the apparent incompetence that brought us some disastrous races, consider where NASCAR would be now should Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have won three championships in a row, especially considering that his recent performances haven’t even put him in serious running for one.

Does anyone doubt that the ratings and attendance would tell a different story if, instead of the 48 team cruising to three titles, that whatever car Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was driving was doing the winning? NASCAR experienced its first ratings increase in several years in 2008 when Junior started driving the 88 for Hendrick Motorsports and people knew he would run better than he had been for “TEI”. After about halfway through the season, when the 88 car had managed only one win and a fuel mileage win at that, ratings trailed off. France wasn’t entirely wrong when he essentially said that as goes Junior, so goes NASCAR. Take it from someone whose website hits triple for Junior articles.

Even without Little E being in the race, a cocky kid named Kyle Busch was certainly doing his part last year for NASCAR’s ratings. Lots of people disliked Kyle and probably still do, but no one disputes that he can drive…or that he is a colorful character. People may boo him, but they’re there and they’re watching—as Dale Earnhardt once advised Jeff Gordon, “as long as they’re making noise”. Ratings began to sink shortly after the Chase started in 2008 as well, when Kyle Busch fell off the edge of the earth in two races.

I won’t say Kyle Busch or Dale Jr. with his new team were wholly responsible for the ratings increase and decrease in 2008, but they sure as all heck generate a lot of traffic on the Internet, so we know that they get a reaction.

How often do Jimmie Johnson moments generate thousands of Youtube hits?

Kurt’s Shorts – What Will Daytona Bring?

  • Ratings down for the Shootout – can’t imagine why. Perhaps the arbitrary decisions of who to enter in the race based on hair color and whether the car has a prime number?
  • I can’t even begin to predict who will win the 500, even seeing who ran well and who didn’t in the Shootout. I was mildly surprised at Tony Stewart’s performance, though…even on plate tracks I don’t recall Haas ever running that well. Perhaps Stewart may prove me wrong about how well they’ll do this year. Then again, you can’t tell a damn thing from plate races. Tell you what…I’ll predict Jeff Gordon takes home his fourth Daytona trophy this year.
  • A start-and-park mission is sad more than anything else, but it is the nature of the beast in NASCAR these days. It may be a good time to reduce the field size to, say, 41 cars. It would solve the pit problem at Dover anyway.
  • I am looking forward to watching Bill Elliott race in this year’s event, especially since he just might be in contention this time around, having topped the charts in both of the first two practices. Maybe Dawsonville Bill has a few moments of awesome still in him.

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Vexing Vito: Three Drivers In Need of a Role Reversal
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marshall
02/13/2009 09:12 AM
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The pundits and motorsports writers would be very surprised to learn how few fans really care at all about Jimmie Johnsons popularity , or lack thereof . Forcing Johnson , Gordon , and all things Hendrick onto the fans just isn’t working . The only Hendrick driver who doesn’t need the shilling of the media to be popular is Earnhardt Jr.

FS_Amy
02/13/2009 09:57 AM
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If so few fans care about them, why would Johnson and Gordon be second and third, respectively, in souvenir sales? While some fans might not care, the overwhelming evidence is that many more fans do-and are willing to put their money where their mouth is. In this day and age, sales of merchandise speak volumes about a driver’s popularity.

Chris
02/13/2009 10:50 AM
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I’d say the Johnson problem is more on the track than off, but I agree with the sentiment. He comes off as a boring driver. Maybe its because he’s so surgical and good, but he’s also fairly conservative.

He doesn’t seem like he takes big risks, doesn’t seem to intimidating, has no wild streak- at least to the casual fan.

When Johnson wins, the races seem boring (unless someone chasing him is giving it all they got, making wild moves to take away the lead.)

He’s a product of NASCAR’s other problems- he plays it well and that’s why he wins.

midasmicah
02/13/2009 11:45 AM
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The problem isn’t just Johnson’s personality. It’s the fact that Hendricks’s complete dominance is turning off a boat load of fans. Gibs is right behind them. And Stewart’s new team is just a wing of Hendricks racing. Eho wants to watch racing in person and on tv when you ‘re about 80% sure that one of these teams is gonna win every week. It takes all the excitement out of the equation. Johnson is a great driver, but people are going to equate that to who he drives for. Put that together with his vanilla personality and you see the results. I’ve been watching na$car for 25+ years and the last few have been so bad that I’m been losing interest. Put that together the idiotic changes brought about by Nero France and again you see the results. He’s made every attempt to fix something that wasn’t broken.

chris
02/13/2009 12:31 PM
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Enough of the Jimmiee Johnson bashing. He’s not the problem, the COT, and the Chase are.

Interesting how everyone hates a WINNER.

If you want trash talk and fueds, watch WWF not NASCAR.

HankZ
02/13/2009 01:12 PM
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I absolutely love your opening paragraph. You pretty much summed up the total BS package. However, everything after that was a nice vanilla poke at getting readers to reply. Nice try though.
I agree with Chris and will add the problems also lie with Bri-guy, networks, too many rules, too many commercials etc etc blah blah blah. Nothing will change unless France surrenders.

Dan
02/13/2009 01:14 PM
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It is really amusing how much effort goes in to diagnosing what is wrong with NASCAR,the answer is simple NOTHING it is evolving like all things do.As it evoles it will be exciting,boring and all the other ings you can think of.The model works and keep bringing most of us back every year we lose some fans and gain some fans Jimmie is boring and like Jeff he too will have a winless year GO Travis GO

marshall
02/13/2009 02:01 PM
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Amy ,we don’t know that Johnson and Gordon are second and third in souvenir sales . Neither do you . You’re getting your numbers from other sources .
And as you well know , sales numbers can easily be manipulated . Authors become number 1 on the best seller list by purchasing large numbers of their own books . We all remember Bill winning the most popular driver award due to one fan in Atlanta buying up all of the ballots and sending them in .
T-shirts can be purchased and handed out to charities or given to fan clubs .
For example , i was in the souvenir trailer area this morning at Daytona , and the biggest crowd was in front of Stewarts trailer .

FS_Amy
02/13/2009 03:20 PM
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The numbers are from Street & Smith, a pretty reliable source. Both Jimmie and Jeff’s fan clubs had their own t-shirt deals, so those numbers are pretty insignificant if they impact the total at all. While it true that some fans buy a lot of stuff individually, some don’t collect merchandise at all, so I’m guessing that averages out. The numbers do, in fact, back up that the fans DO care about Gordon and Johnson. If you want personal anecdotes, the last two races I was at where I sat in the grandstands, I was surrounded by fans in 24 and 48 stuff. I’m sure Tony’s sales will be very good this year as well-he’s with a new team and has a lot of fans who will want his new stuff. But to say that nobody cares about two drivers when the evidence clearly points otherwise is misguided. You might not care, but somebody out there obviously does. You don’t have to like a driver, but to say that fans in general don’t care is simply not true.

Ed
02/13/2009 03:38 PM
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NASCAR has many problems not the least of which is a host of drivers like Johnson. I don’t think Johnson by himself is the problem, but when you include all of the other no-personality, smooth talking, “good looking” drivers, then you have identified one problem. Sponsors don’t really care if a driver can drive as long as he is “cute,” has no discernable accent, and doesn’t rock the boat. Oh, and he has to be under 30. I watched part of the Twin 125’s yesterday. As the camera scanned the drivers, I couldn’t identify 50% of them.

marshall
02/13/2009 05:56 PM
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Numbers from Street and Smith reliable ? . Why would you think that ? But thats another issue entirely . Lets just say i’d have my doubts .
What i said was that Johnson and Gordon were not as popular as the constant hype by the media would have us believe . Not that they aren’t popular , just not as popular as we are led to believe . And you aren’t exactly unbiased .

Dennis
02/13/2009 09:33 PM
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Well Jimmie does sort of look like one of those Team America puppets in the picture with the microphone.

jim
02/14/2009 06:51 AM
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The problem is the way Nascar over marketed themselves and who they targeted. The chase, the 35 point rule, and super teams haven’t helped

FS_Kurt
02/14/2009 11:20 AM
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Chris, I knew someone was going to take what I was saying the wrong way, and that’s ok because I suppose the title of the column and the photos give the impression that the column is a Johnson bash.

But that wasn’t what I meant at all. I thought I was being pretty complimentary to him actually. You’re right…he is a winner.

I don’t argue with your feelings about the car or the chase either.

Rosemary C.
02/15/2009 03:05 AM
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This is not the first time I have become incensed by the Jimmie bashing in an article only to realize that underneath it all was an acknowledgement of his accomplishments and other good qualities. Pushing buttons yields results. Incidentally, the Lowe’s blue Chevrolet with the bright yellow number 48 presents a very clean and uncluttered look and is one of the best looking race cars on the track. Maybe that bothers people, too.

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