The Frontstretch: Jimmie Johnson: Continuing To Dominate In Spite of a Dreaded Disease by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday November 18, 2009

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Jimmie Johnson: Continuing To Dominate In Spite of a Dreaded Disease

The Voice Of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday November 18, 2009


With Jimmie Johnson on the brink of winning his fourth consecutive Sprint Cup Championship, one thing stands out as he and the No. 48 Lowe’s team prepare to make history this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway:

Nobody really cares.

That is, no one outside of Hendrick Motorsports, his fan base, or the media at large. Listen to any number of call-in shows, forum postings, or column comments on this site or any other, and the fan interest ranks somewhere up there with standing in line to jam your fist into a beehive. This select group may just be “the haters” that Jimmie dedicated his 2006 Daytona 500 victory to … but their membership is hitting record numbers.

The crazy thing is that in any other sport, Johnson would be the talk of the town, his accomplishments heralded while he’s shown the utmost respect and deference. So why, then, is the most successful and accomplished driver of the last decade treated with the sort of revile and disgust that is usually reserved solely for lepers, sex offenders, and telemarketers?

Part of it may be related to something Johnson contracted in late 2001. It is a conflicting disease that is both empowering and crippling at the same time, one whose origins are unknown and unexplainable. I don’t know how to break this to you gently, so you may want to have a seat first…

Jimmie Johnson suffers from Gordonitis.

The emergence of Gordonitis can be traced back to the early 1990s. Back then, Jeff Gordon had moved south to stock car country, having spent his formative years running roughshod through the USAC midget and Silver Crown series, all the while growing the kind of mullet that any IROC-Z owner would be proud to sport through their T-tops and a glorious mustache that even Sam Elliott would envy. Driving for Bill Davis’ Busch Grand National operation, he jumped ship from what would have been a factory-backed Ford ride, instead signing with Hendrick Motorsports’ burgeoning new No. 24 team in late 1992. It was one assembled expressly for him, with crew chief Ray Evernham putting together the rainbow-hued machines that would soon come to dominate NASCAR competition as we knew it.

Gordon was initially well-received by NASCAR fans, starting his first race at Atlanta at the same time Richard Petty’s driving career was coming to a close. He went winless his first year, tearing off the front clips off the majority of his fleet of DuPont Chevrolets in going through what used to be the difficult learning curve from Busch to Cup. The next season, he won his first race at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, succeeding through a blur of tears to the delight of the crowd and fans everywhere. He would win his second race a few months later at Indianapolis, battling fender to fender with Ernie Irvan for the inaugural Brickyard 400 win in front of his adopted home state crowd.

Then, it happened.

In 1995, a different Jeff Gordon appeared. His hair was perfect. He was sporting the Ray Bans in magazine ads that were once the domain of Dirty Harry and Layne Staley. He was appearing in toothpaste commercials with his former Miss Winston trophy girl wife. He was suddenly the new face of NASCAR, much to the chagrin of many longtime fans – especially those who had No. 3 stickers plastered all over their trucks. It was also the year that he began winning races with such regularity that somebody should have nicknamed him ExLax.

Seven wins and his first Winston Cup championship in 1995 were the reward and the shape of things to come, from the driver who was as clean cut and polished as a new congressional candidate. The next year, he would win a series-leading 10 races, a feat he would match again in 1997 with his second championship. Gordon’s climb to the top peaked in an obliteration of records in 1998, with 13 wins and his third title in four years that left everyone but Mark Martin over 700 points behind him by the end of the season.

It was about this same time that fans began to turn against Gordon en masse – which seems to be about the point where many fans are with Jimmie Johnson today.

There are a number of similarities between these two. Both are from California originally, working their way up the ladder through racing series that some fans may know much about. Gordon cut his teeth through midgets and sprint cars, while Johnson did so through the SCORE off-road truck organization and the now defunct ASA series. Both men have imposing eyebrows and are married to models, both drive Chevrolets for Rick Hendrick, 24 is half of 48 – and Gordon owns an equity stake in Johnson’s Lowe’s Chevrolet.

Each also has had a crew chief that not so much bent the rules, but exploited every square inch of the rulebook to their advantage, causing it to be rewritten several times over with the express intent of restraining them.

Despite a fan base that’s increasingly alienated by his success, Jimmie Johnson is poised to stand alone atop the Sprint Cup ladder with an accomplishment that may never be matched.

And both had roughly the same amount of stock car training in NASCAR’s second-tier division. Johnson came into the series full-time in 2002, with all of one then-Busch Series (Nationwide today) victory to his credit driving for the small Herzog Motorsports operation. His most impressive accomplishment to date had been his death-defying crash at Watkins Glen, where he managed to effectively jump the sand trap in Turn 1 and stuff it into a pile of Styrofoam after his brakes failed. But he won the pole for the Daytona 500 in his Cup debut (Gordon won his first Daytona 125-mile qualifying race), and went on to win three races that season — the first of which came at his home track, Fontana, the type of storybook ending you usually see in fairy tales and not reality.

Suddenly, Johnson’s career was evolving even faster than Gordon’s did. In only his second year of full-time competition, he finished second in the championship battle to Matt Kenseth, falling short by 90 points in the last non-Chase season of 2003. The next year, Johnson won eight races – and came within eight points (one position and one lap led) of winning the inaugural Chase for the Championship, finishing second to Kurt Busch who narrowly avoided disaster (and the pit entrance wall) that day.

2005 saw Johnson enter the final race 52 points behind Stewart, but a blown tire and resulting wreck relegated him to fifth in the final standings. The season had taken its toll on the team, with Chad Knaus visibly frustrated, and Johnson was unsure if the two should continue working together.

That was similar to the situation that Jeff Gordon experienced in 1999, when the relationship between he and Ray Evernham began exhibiting some cracks. At Dover that year, Gordon was penalized and held on pit road after Evernham had pulled out the front fenders a bit during a pit stop. Evernham was incensed, protesting vocally – and quite visibly – on pit road – and it was subsequently his final race atop the No. 24 pit box. Knaus’ terse comment of, “Good job, good season…let’s go home…,” following Johnson’s spin at the season finale in Homestead in 2005, while in title contention, could have been a similar tipping point. But after a hug-it-out session during the offseason, both renewed their commitment to each other and the No. 48 team moving forward.

Unfortunately for the rest of the field, it has worked out from there.

2006 began with Johnson dedicating his Daytona 500 win to those who had spoke ill of his team and his crew chief – who was serving a suspension for installing what was essentially an adjustable rear window in the back of the No. 48 during qualifying. It was also the year that Johnson and company established their Chase strategy that has them at this point in racing history. They posted but one Top 10 finish in five races leading up to the first Chase race at Loudon, then went on a tear the final six weeks, posting a win, four seconds, and a ninth place finish to win it all. It was a title that would have been won under any points circumstance: 56 points under The Chase format, and four points under the traditional system.

But hey, the Chase makes it more interesting, right?

Their second title in 2007 was another example of their Chase strategy working to perfection, winning four straight races in a year that would have seen Jeff Gordon’s “Drive for Five” come to fruition — by 353 points under the system that saw Gordon win four Cup titles previously — leading to the derision of many fans. A dominant 10-win season and a demeanor that leaned to the mild side started to raise the ire of some of the boo-birds in the grandstand, while others cheered the exploits of seeing an unkempt Tony Stewart attempting to scale the catchfence after one of his victories. To make matters worse, Johnson’s third title in 2008 was one of quiet consistency, legging it out over Carl Edwards in the long run — though under the old system, Edwards would have captured the 2008 title by 16 points.

That title tied him with Cale Yarborough for having been the only two drivers to win three consecutive championships. It also brought into question the significance of the titles Johnson has won, compared to those that Yarborough scored against the likes of Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, and Bobby Allison.

Sure, it is a moot point to keep comparing titles that Johnson would have won or lost depending on the points system – just as it was in 1998, when Jeff Gordon’s 13 wins were compared to Richard Petty’s 13-win 1975 season – and subsequently, the King’s defining 1967 season of 27 wins, which featured 10 in a row. It is, however, yet another similarity that Gordon and Johnson share – and both will forever endure.

Trying to match stats from different eras or championships won in other formats is always difficult. But in NASCAR, it gets muddier due to the variables involved, not to mention the most fickle variable of all.

The fans.

In no other sport is dominance and dynasty rejected as it is in NASCAR. Even in Formula One, when Michael Schumacher and Ferrari were the predestined championship winners, or Roger Penske’s mastery of Indianapolis, is long-term success viewed as a negative. It’s amazing how much it’s frowned upon when one team – or driver – is bulldozing the competition week after week. Even Richard Petty, when interviewed during Dale Earnhardt’s record-tying seventh championship in 1994, remarked, “I used to beat people, but not like Earnhardt; he will run people right into the ground.”

Jeff Gordon, in a way, picked up where Dale Earnhardt had left off, and Jimmie Johnson has extended that margin of victory even further still. But while in other sports that sort of excellence of execution is celebrated and honored, in NASCAR it is a call to arms, and at certain tracks in Alabama and elsewhere, it can lead to things being chucked onto the track in response.

I can still remember sitting on the backstretch at the Coca-Cola 600 in 1998. Jeff Gordon had just taken the lead from Rusty Wallace in the closing laps coming out of Turn 2. The next time by, I vividly remember seeing a golden Miller High Life can cresting the fence a few rows in front of me, dotting the side of the No. 24 car as it accelerated coming out of the second turn on the white flag lap.

As reckless and irresponsible as it was, I couldn’t help but stare in awe and wonder at how some drunk bastard was able to fire a perfect strike at something 25 yards away, going 170 mph. But while you might think that same respect was shown for the talents of the driver who just took the lead, it was roundly rejected from my seat section. Similar verbal beer can lobs have been coming all year towards the No. 48, reaching their zenith two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway as Johnson’s car was careening off the inside retaining wall, shedding parts and points in the process.

So, what gives? After all, he is an affable fellow, he doesn’t make a fool of himself or disgrace the sport with outlandish or boorish behavior. He is approachable, doesn’t get rattled, and his charitable works through his Jimmie Johnson Foundation have helped those in need through Habitat for Humanity, Victory Junction Gang, Lowe’s Toolbox K-12 Education Programs, and the Hendrick Marrow Program.

Then again, this is a sport whose foundation was built upon tax evasion and distribution of contraband — two things which you’ll likely never see this man be a part of. Maybe it’s because they are fans that want to see Mark Martin finally break through and win the title that he should have won four times already, or they are having flashbacks to the late ’90’s to Jeff Gordon’s reign as the most dominant driver in the series.

Whatever the reasons, Gordonitis can affect fans as well as drivers, and the only vaccine known is the bumper of another car, or a new driver to come and take the place of whomever is the one racking up wins and championships — like a 100 yard Bo Jackson Tecmo Bowl touchdown run. But for those who have contracted this dreaded affliction, take heart; the plug will be pulled in five days, and you will be off to rest and convalesce once again in Daytona Beach, Florida in three short months.

Just know this much before you go. Barring some sort of H1N1 or Tamiflu inoculation program undertaken by the other teams and drivers during the offseason, the probability for a relapse in 2010 still remains very high.

Contact Vito Pugliese

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M.B. Voelker
11/18/2009 07:47 AM

The problem with Jimmie Johnson and the fans is not that he IS a boring, plain vanilla personality so much as it is that he presents a boring, plain vanilla personality ON PURPOSE.

When fans complain about how dull he is we are continually assured that “if we knew the real Jimmie” we’d like him because “he’s a different person away from the track.” Once again a new documentary is promising to reveal, “the real Jimmie” and is supposed to provide an epiphany of fresh admiration for we fans who are now yawning.

Which reinforces my point rather than counters it. How are we supposed to root for a mask when we know that what we see is a false facade? The talent is real, but the man fans see on TV — the only way we have to form an opinion of him — is a fake. Authentic enthusiasm for a fake is impossible.

I know that the hotheads and hard-chargers who capture my interest — Biffle, both Busches, Hornaday, etc. — are often their own worst enemies and that Jimmie’s hyper-controlled style is part of what puts him in front of them. But I also know that what I see from my guys is authentic and that even when I’m itching to whack them upside the head with a 2×4 after some particularly boneheaded stunt they never, never, never bore me.

11/18/2009 11:11 AM

You touched on it Vito, his equipment comes from a convicted felon, who sleeps with Brain Farce, with a many time caught cheating crew chief. Knowing he could not hold Mark Martin’s jock, he does what he has learned to do…….kiss butt so that he gets ALL the breaks…..May the fleas of a thousand camels infest his crouch, and may he hit the wall hard enough to give him a DNF!!

11/18/2009 11:24 AM

Huge difference in Jeff and idiot jj!…Jeff had to be great for 36 Races to win his 4 championships! idiot moron and his cheating crew chief only has to be great for 10 Races…I’m sorry, but there’s NO WAY you can compare those championships, no matter how hard you try! idiot moron will never come close to the driver that Jeff is! End of story!

11/18/2009 11:27 AM

I hope so much that idiot moron goes straight into the wall on the first lap at Homestead! nascrap has been horrible this year, but that would make it a GREAT year in itself!

Don Mei
11/18/2009 12:09 PM

I dont get it either, Vito. Anyone who rants about Chad being such a “cheater” sure as hell doesnt know much about the history of Nascar. “Bending the rules” has always been a necessary part of a crew chiefs job description.Smoky Yunick, one of the most revered figures in Nascar history called it creative rules interpretation. Some of you may remember his famous seven eighths size Chevelle of 1966 or 67. No one could figure out why the car was so quick. That exercise was the reason Nascar went to templates. As far as Johnson is concerned, its sure as hell not his fault that Nascar came up with the idiotic chase format. Maybe we should all pray that he coldcocks Brian in front of the TV cameras some day.

11/18/2009 12:20 PM

To johnboy60: I could not have said it better. May Mark Martin get this one and retire. I would like Martin better if he were driving for someone else. I vagely thought Hendrick would see to it that Martin wins the championship but it appears not so, but it ain’t over till the fat lady sings and she is tuning up now.

Bad Wolf
11/18/2009 12:24 PM

You’re pretty much spot on about Jeff Gordon and gordonitis, but a large part of the backlash against him was aimed at the new fans he brought with him who thought Jeff Gordon was the Alpha and Omega, and the new image he brought which started to turn Nascar into the Vanilla Snow Racing Series. It also did not help that his car was painted with the international symbol for a certain non mainstream group of people.

The fans that Jeff Gordon brought to the sport were fans of Jeff Gordon and not so much fans of stock car racing. I have said before and will say it again here; I had never seen fans of any other driver at the track during qualifying get up and leave as a group after their driver had qualified. The fans that came in with Jeff Gordon had no knowlege of the history of Nascar or of the drivers that they considered backwards rednecks. They just tuned in to watch Vanilla Ice Pudding Pop put a whooping on the old southern hicks or because young females found him cute, and Nascar started to notice and figured they could grow the sport by ditching the ones who brought them to the dance for the new sexy yuppies with money and the coveted 13-35 year old females.

The big corporations also took notice, and figured they could jump on the New and Improved Nascar to shill their products. After a while we started to get the scripted Victory Lane interviews where it was all about getting the sponsor plugs in, and making sure the label of your sponsored drink is facing the camera while you take a refreshing swig. Never again would we hear real feelings or emotion on camera for fear of upsetting a sponsor or Nascar.

That’s pretty much the reason for my Gordonitis, not so much personally against Jeff Gordon but what came along with him into the sport. All these changes would have probably came about with or without him, but he is the face of the change that has happened to Nascar over the last 15 years. Nascar chose to go Hollywood and turn the races into storylines, scripts and marketable drivers over letting the on track action tell the story. If done right with good Nascar leadership and in small doses the new fans and sponsors could have been assimilated into the old Nascar culture without changing the whole template. Instead the leaders in Daytona embraced the new Uptown Nascar in the quest for money, then it went into overdrive when the child prince Brain was installed as King of Nascar.

It all worked for a while with ratings and attendance growing each year, but even the new fans are growing weary of the bland racing and vanilla drivers, while the old fans are, after years of warnings turning off the show and doing other things on the weekends. Jimmie Johnson has taken the baton from Jeff Gordon and is now the new face of powdered suger in Nascar, driving the Hostess Twinkie COT with such consistancy that he is on his way to his 4th straight Cup title. Time to stock up on skim milk and rice cakes to celebrate come Sunday.

Dans Mom
11/18/2009 12:41 PM

Jimmie Johnson is a victim of circumstances. It’s not his fault everyone is crapping on NASCAR these days – he’s just a scapegoat.

Jimmie didn’t invent the chase, the cot, double file restarts, goodyear tires, or anything that people complain about. He – unlike the media and fans, adapted and made the best of it.

Why don’t more drivers save their stuff and use the first 26 races as a test session?

Why don’t other crew cheifs use creative engineering?

The only was Jimmie Johnson has changed NASCAR is by beating everyone else. So You have two choices… get better, or complain till you leave.

11/18/2009 01:14 PM

You didn’t need to draw it out Vito , you had it right at the begining . NO ONE CARES .
The one over riding factor concerning the tremendous dislike for Gordon and Johnson is the constant spectre of cheating and favoritism by NASCAR .
Cheating by both teams over the years has been legendary . They’ve both been caught many , many times . I can’t think of any crew chief in NASCAR history who’s been suspended more times than Knaus , and as Don points out , thats pretty impressive considering that the sport was based on “ getting competitive “ .In the eyes of a great many fans , Gordon and Johnson have acheived their success unfairly , by using clearly illegal cars . They have been illegal many times , they’ve both been caught . The question is , how many wins did each driver have where the illegal parts weren’t caught .

Then of course we have the favoritism question , it never seems to go away . How many times has NASCAR thrown a phoney debris caution just as Johnson has a tire going down , or Gordon is about to get lapped . Some say Dale Jr. now gets the same calls from NASCAR , but in his case it doesn’t seem to be able to help his dismal performance .

You did a great job of trying to sell us on the wonderfullness of your two favorite drivers Vito , but the hatred for those two , and their teams , and their car owner , run far deeper than just dumb uninformed race fans reacting to drivers who win all the time .

Interesting you mention their charitable works . This area is one where i do have a problem with the facts being far outweighed by the hype . While they both do give to charitable causes , they usually do so by writing checks , not by getting their hands dirty . I know they’ve both made feeble efforts to look like heros and pound a nail or two , but those times were mostly photo ops . When it became fashionable to have foundations , they both jumped on the bandwagon . Any amount of giving is a good thing ,and they should be proud of helping , but lets drop the sainthood idea for those two , because they are pretty far down the list of racers who really do give of both themselves and their money .

11/18/2009 03:01 PM

Nobody is disputing the fact that Johnson is a great driver. He is just that. The problem is there is no connection made with blue collar people that so loved Earnhardt because of his forcefull personality. The sad thing is that Johnson came up the hard way from a blue collar environment. I used to watch him in the off-road truck series. Even in the Busch series he showed personality. What happened? Part of it is that Hendrick Motorsports does not want drivers that spark even the remote possibility of controversary. They all fit this robotic state. Dale Jr. does not fit into this mold and I think that is one of the reasons for his failure at Hendricks. God, even Stewart is suddenly suffering from Hendrickitis. Not Gordonitis, but Hendrickitis. The reason Johnson is viewed with such hostility is that he shows the personality of a fence post to the public, just as Gordon did. Like I said, no connection with the common fan I’m sure Johnson has a different personality away from the track, but until he’s allowed to show it, this is the way he will be perseived. This is my take.

Don Mei
11/18/2009 03:06 PM

I am very rarely at a loss for words but I am now…and saddened. I cant believe the hatred and vitriol directed against people in our sport by others who dont even know them. My God, in the great scheme of things its really not that important!!!

Kevin in SoCal
11/18/2009 04:18 PM

Bad Wolf said: “I had never seen fans of any other driver at the track during qualifying get up and leave as a group after their driver had qualified.”

I have heard many stories of Dale Jr fans showing up to watch him qualify and then getting up and leaving afterwards, too…. As well as leaving the track and/or turning off the TV once Dale crashes out during the race.

11/18/2009 05:45 PM

Is that why the attendance at Fontana is so low?????

11/18/2009 09:08 PM

Gordon has two things Johnson doesn’t, a personality and a better looking wife.

Kevin in SoCal
11/19/2009 01:53 AM

Matt said: “idiot moron and his cheating crew chief only has to be great for 10 Races…”

Tell Kyle Busch or Matt Kenseth they only have to be great for 10 races…

Contact Vito Pugliese