Tony Stewart won the race at Kansas, but much of the focus continues to revolve around the man who finished ninth. After leading for much of the day Sunday, Jimmie Johnson‘s team opened the door to their rivals with a rare pit-road strategy mistake, with a four-tire stop at the wrong time keeping them from whooping the field and all but officially taking control of their bid for four straight titles. Considering the No. 48 car’s track record (and entering the day as the race’s defending champ) this race was where most of its competitors expected the door to get slammed in their face. Instead, Johnson left them all with a ray’s worth of hope going forward.
But at this point, that’s all it is. The reigning champ leaves Kansas second in the points, just 18 out of the lead and with the best average finish this season (9.8) of all 12 Chasers at the next six tracks on the schedule. As the Cup Series moves on to California this Sunday, he still must be considered the prohibitive favorite… and until he’s not, millions of fans will end up turning off their televisions because of it.
That attitude begs a simple question from a journalist’s standpoint: why? The answer seems so easy – the No. 48 has been too dominant for too long – but it’s really a lot more complex. Most times in sports, the quest to make history has captivated Americans in record numbers. The battle to set the home run record arguably saved the game of baseball in the late 1990s, while the Bulls’ run to six titles in eight years fueled the NBA’s growth in that same era. Even when a team is hated for their perfection, millions still wind up watching in disgust. For example, the Pats don’t exactly have a warm and fuzzy face to the world under the introvert coach Bill Belichick, but their run of perfection up to the Super Bowl had everyone tuning in record numbers just to see if someone could beat them.
Yet in NASCAR, as Johnson goes for a record that’s never been accomplished before in 60 years, the reaction from most fans is… indifference. We’ve got a team that’s on a pace to leave their driver third on the all-time win list by age 40, a man in Johnson himself who at the end of the year would have more Cup titles than anyone not named Gordon, Earnhardt or Petty… and yet, the reaction to so many people reading is, “Who cares?”
With the privilege of being at the track week in, week out, I’ve talked to a lot of fans, as well as people inside and outside the sport to try and get a sense of why the Johnson phenomenon isn’t taking off. Some reasons are silly, others serious, but they all point to a pattern that has yet to be stopped – and gives us some insight into the current decline of NASCAR as a whole.
Here, then, are five reasons why the four-peat has flattened fans’ interest in the sport:
No. 1 – People think crew chief Chad Knaus is cheating
In eight years of writing, I can honestly tell you this email, comment, conversation comes up the most the second you say the words, “Jimmie Johnson.” As recently as this past weekend, fans were all fired up about the latest “Bad Chad” incident in which NASCAR warned the No. 48 and No. 5 teams they came close to failing inspection, coming to within less than 1/8 of an inch of meeting NASCAR’s template off the center line of the car.
Now, to say Knaus is cheating off this latest incident is arguable at best (My take: of course they came close to failing inspection! You’re not winning championships unless you’re pushing everything you got to the ragged edge.) But the public perception battle Knaus faces is an uphill one he’ll never win. Twice during Johnson’s title-winning run the crew chief has been suspended six weeks for legitimate rules violations, including at the sport’s biggest race, the 2006 Daytona 500.
After those two instances, well… in the world of sports culture today, it’s one of guilty until proven innocent. Look at baseball, where one claim of steroids use taints a player’s career and may very well keep them from reaching their ultimate goal, the Hall of Fame. Sure, a 50-game suspension allows them to get a second chance, but in the eyes of the fans, they’re already tainted for life.
That’s the problem right now with the No. 48. Too many fans think they’re tainted… but unlike with steroids, the drug causing Johnson’s “success” (Knaus) hasn’t been removed. He’s just become one of the main leaders in the whole Hendrick organization, and that’s continued to make a whole lot of people mad.
As in, turn off the television when it’s Chase time mad.
No. 2 – Johnson is the poster child for a system fans hate to begin with
It’s another column for another day, but when looking at ratings and attendance alone – nothing more – there’s a compelling case to say fans are unhappy at best with the Chase format. (Latest example: New Hampshire’s 2.5 initial rating was 17% lower than in 2003, the year before the playoff format was adopted).
What does Johnson have to do with that? Nothing; it’s not his fault these rules were adopted. But the No. 48 is the best at using the rules to their advantage, and that’s what makes the fans so disgruntled. Perhaps there’s no better example than 2006, when Johnson had just one win but four second-place finishes en route to winning his first title. In a system where playing it safe for “points” is rewarded with the championship trophy, Johnson will choose consistency over combativeness any day, knowing when to back off for a seventh-place run instead of fighting tooth and nail for sixth.
Again, you can’t blame them for setting that philosophy; under this system, it’s genius, to the point other drivers (Juan Pablo Montoya most recently) have followed the same pattern to secure their spot in the top 12.
Looking to play copycat? It’s easy. Basically, that strategy can be boiled down to the following:
- Focus hard on the Chase races in the first half of the season. Those are test sessions for the real races that’ll decide the championship in the Fall.
- If you can win, great. If you have a top-five car, don’t bother fighting for more; you need to have those points to make the Chase in case you have a bad day. It doesn’t hurt to finish second if you have a second-place car.
- Don’t get overaggressive on the racetrack until you’re assured a spot in the playoffs. Then and only then can chances be taken (gambles like the fuel mileage in Michigan and other experiments the No. 48 used in August and September which had those not schooled in the way they do things thinking they were off-balance heading into the Chase).
But this success has come with disastrous consequences. We have a whole legion of championship-contending cars now treating their races like fragile, broken glass, afraid to make any moves until the final 50 laps if they’re in a top-five or top-10 position that’ll get them a good “points day.” Fans understand Johnson’s success is at the root of all that, because any good racer knows the second someone finds an advantage, it’s getting copied the next day.
And so, the No. 48 in their pursuit of a title (unjustly or not) becomes the focus of fans’ anger concerning boring races. For if you hate the team playing by the rules you hate, it’s only natural you despise the march towards a record that wouldn’t be achieved if those rules were different. (For those who forget, Johnson’s second title in 2007 would have gone to Jeff Gordon under the old format).
No. 3 – It’s keeping Dale Earnhardt Jr. from winning
Look, I said at the start of this column some of these reasons weren’t exactly “logical.” But my job is to report what I see and observe around the circuit. Let’s start with some basic facts before we go crazy:
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved over to Hendrick in 2008 with the goal of winning a championship. Since then, he’s had a worse two-year stretch (21 top 10s in ’08-’09 as opposed to 29 in ’06-’07) then his horrible ending with DEI, in which he left because the equipment wasn’t up to par compared to some other organizations.
- Rick Hendrick has never had all four of his cars in the Chase.
- Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver.
All of that has left a large group of fans really disgruntled, some of whom won’t bother to turn on the TV the last 10 races simply because their man isn’t in the playoffs. What’s tops among their long legion of complaints?
“Junior’s not getting the same equipment as everyone else on the team.”
Considering the information sharing and open book policy at Hendrick, that’s a very tough statement to back up with actual facts. But that’s the type of criticism that’ll happen (fairly or unfairly) when you put four All-Stars on the same team, because NASCAR is an individual sport at its core. Only one of those guys can win the title, and for the other three they’re left to answer the questions of why they didn’t keep up.
Well, in almost two years Junior and the No. 88 have consistently come up short, and as long as the Johnson-Knaus duo exists chances are their biggest obstacle in winning a title comes from within their own organization. This leaves many Junior fans feeling like their man made a mistake, thinking Hendrick’s playing favorites with the No. 48. I’ve even heard some people go so far as to call Junior’s car “Jimmie Johnson’s R&D.”
Now, anyone with any actual insight into Hendrick knows Junior’s not being used as an R&D effort. But remember those fans I mentioned before? They’re already calling me an idiot for attempting to discredit their argument; and believe me, there’s a heck of a lot of them who feel this way.
In sports and in life, perception can mean everything. And until Junior puts a kink into Johnson’s armor, that’s going to be hard to break, leaving them turning the channel the second he turns on the jets. After all, he’s about to break a record they feel their own driver will never achieve as long as both are housed under the same roof.
No. 4 – Johnson doesn’t have a rivalry
OK, quick show of hands… who hates Johnson? No, not in the stands silly, in the garage! The answer, to be honest, isn’t a whole lot of people. Greg Biffle has been in the news lately, trying to stir up trouble with Johnson’s extra on-track tire test at Dover he claims gave him an edge on the rest of the field this September. Denny Hamlin has also raised a bit of a stink, and then we can’t forget about a few on-track bumps between Johnson and Kurt Busch over the summer.
Still, looking at the big picture, the No. 48 team just doesn’t have a consistent rival they’re battling on the racetrack week in, week out over the past three years. Each year, it’s been a different driver after the No. 48: Matt Kenseth/Jeff Burton in 2006, Gordon in 2007, Carl Edwards in 2008, and now Mark Martin/Montoya this year. It’s a testament to Johnson’s longevity… but it’s also not as good at creating a compelling storyline. Yankees/Red Sox, for all its detractors, gets the biggest audience for a reason: it’s a rivalry people grasp with passionate feelings on both sides.
I just don’t think we get that in NASCAR when people talk about Jimmie Johnson vs., well, anyone.
No. 5 – Johnson’s personality
So many journalists have hammered this point home, so many times, but the sad fact remains Johnson is racing’s equivalent of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. Great person, great team: but with about as much drama surrounding it as a public library at 3:00 in the afternoon. America loves a feel-good story, but in sports it needs to come with a whole lot of emotion attached. And for the soft-spoken Johnson, an ingrained notion of political correctness combined with the fact he’s in a difficult spot (not yet veteran leader, not “aggressive young gun”) leaves him in this awkward in-between where he doesn’t even have the biggest voice within his own organization. Johnson may break the records of an Earnhardt or Petty someday, but his personality just doesn’t have that “it” factor they had to get fans running to the racetrack or even their television sets to see what’s happening.
That off-track demeanor often translates into Johnson’s racing style. He’s not flashy and very rarely will muscle a guy out of the way in order to get the win. He’s also as calculated a driver as he is clean: when’s the last time you saw Johnson spin somebody outside of Daytona and Talladega? It’s a great legacy he’s building within the sport – just nothing anyone appears to be interested in.
People (Johnson fans especially) misinterpret this line of thinking to mean that nobody appreciates the three-time champ. That couldn’t be farther from the truth; after all, there is a huge difference between hatred and indifference. Over in the NBA, you have a good amount of core fans who like the Spurs, just like Johnson will always have his true fans. But the amount of fans in San Antonio compared to New York or elsewhere… well, that’s the reason we call them “small market” and “big market” teams. And for the past four years, you’ve had an uninspiring Johnson, the equivalent of that “small market,” attempting to sustain the growth of the second-biggest sport in America with his success. That’s just not going to happen… sorry.
As I write this piece, I think back to Sprint Cup Media Day a few weeks ago and how different drivers were swarmed by writers like a flock of sheep. Montoya had so many reporters around him, I wondered how he could breathe. Yet an hour later, Johnson sat in that same spot and maybe half as many people cared. Instead of being excited about the possibility of history being made, it looked like those in attendance were simply tired about the story in general: and these are the reporters, where it’s our job to try and tell great stories. If so many can’t get excited about it, one can only wonder about the fanbase itself….
With the series headed to California, there are still eight drivers who could leave that track atop the standings. Martin is still in first place, with Montoya and former champions Stewart and Busch within striking distance. But until Johnson’s name falls out of contention, there’s an air of inevitability surrounding the quest for number four that remains. And for better or for worse, that’s keeping this year’s on-track Chase from showing any off-track signs of life – even with a story that should be as groundbreaking as the record it’s trying to achieve.
Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower… even though he’s still learning how to use it (be patient on that one!)