This weekend at Homestead, the NASCAR Cup season comes to an end. After 36 races during a 10-month long season, a champion will be crowned… and most likely, that champion will be Jimmie Johnson. Barring a catastrophic failure, Johnson will hold onto his 63-point lead entering Homestead, taking the ultimate victory lap Sunday evening. With the title all but assured, it’s logical to move on to what happens next: how will Johnson be received as a Cup champion?
Two years ago, Kurt Busch took home the hardware after Homestead in what amounted to a mild Chase surprise. Some people thought that was the death knell for the sport. How could people possibly embrace such a brash, abrasive young man as their new NASCAR King? Yet Busch carried himself well and represented the sport with dignity for most of the year. Barring that little escapade in Arizona that consistently seems to overshadow his title defense, he was a good representative for the sport during his reign as the champ. Busch put forth a great effort to ingratiate himself with the fanbase and the new fans coming into the sport, as Tony Stewart has also done following his second title in 2005. The big question now is simple: will Johnson do the same?
No doubt, he’s starting off with a tough hill to climb. Something as simple as where Johnson grew up already puts him at a disadvantage. He’s from California… dyed in the wool NASCAR fans don’t like, a champion that grew up west of the Mississippi. That was one of the knocks on Busch from old school NASCAR fans, that he was from “out there;” growing up in Las Vegas, he wasn’t one of “them.” Try as they might to squash the core fanbase of NASCAR, drivers from other regions still struggle to go mainstream with their fanbase; this sport is still Southeastern at its core. The hardcore fans want their champions to come from the dirt tracks and bullrings, not the tree-hugging, liberal West Coast. They want good ol’ boys who wore overalls growing up, men who hunt and fish and feel like someone they could have a cold one with after the race on Sunday. The irony is Johnson does fish and do some of the things these hardcore fans adore… but because of his physical appearance, many will automatically write him off.
Johnson also has to overcome the Jeff Gordon factor. Gordon is a four-time Cup champion; he still gets booed as much as he gets cheered when he is introduced at the racetrack. Although he has been the champ four times, a majority of Cup fans still view him as an outsider. Even though the perception is inaccurate, they feel that Gordon didn’t pay his dues. All of his success coming up through the ranks is ignored, and he is still viewed as having been given a ride by Hendrick and not earning his keep, unlike those born and bred in the mold of Dale Earnhardt Sr., working hard to build their way up through the sport. That perception carries over to Johnson. Gordon is his car owner… so he is viewed the same way as his boss. He is the pretty boy from California that was given a ride without ever proving himself worthy. Forget the fact that Johnson had just as much success in the Busch Series as Stewart did; he isn’t regarded nearly as highly as a driver.
Finally, there is just Johnson’s “aura.” Aura isn’t something that you can really quantify, but there is just something about Johnson that seems to put people off. Jimmie often comes across as aloof when he interacts with the media and the fans. Reportedly, he worries extensively about the things he says and how they will be perceived. That may be why he always seems as if he is talking down to the people he is corresponding with. His satellite radio show has certainly allowed people the opportunity to see a lighter side of him, and has appeared to endear him to a few more fans; but how many people other than his core fan base actually tune into that show? It’s not everyone, that’s for sure.
With Johnson as the heir apparent to the Cup title, we are facing a year of being bombarded with commercials and interviews featuring Jimmie. Here’s hoping that his PR folks work with him and polish the media appropriately so that he comes across as a genuine, likeable guy. Someone who has finally achieved his lifelong goal should be allowed to enjoy it without enduring life as an outcast, away from the typical NASCAR fan.