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Thompson in Turn 5: Jimmie Johnson’s Garage Leadership Misinterpreted by the Media

There was certainly no shortage of accolades being heaped on the crew of Jimmie Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 by the ABC broadcast crew, lauding their impressive work following a lap 3 accident Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. However, what was not known at the time was that the driver, who sat stoically inside his racecar for more than an hour while more than a dozen crew members methodically rebuilt his mangled Chevrolet, deserved as much, if not more, of the credit for the extraordinary effort as anyone else.

Of course, hindsight is always 20/20. For as it was happening, Johnson’s actions seemed odd and were being viewed by others, including this writer, as downright cowardly. And I’m not alone in that opinion. Many amidst the gaggle of reporters in the garage area that day shared my view that the winner of the past three Sprint Cup Series championships remained in his seat simply to avoid facing the waiting news media.

In fact, SIRIUS XM Radio’s Claire B. Lang, one of NASCAR’s most entrenched and reliable reporters, commented during her post-race show that she overheard numerous media personalities grumbling about Johnson’s refusal to make himself available to the assembled throng around the car. Lang’s account of their remarks left little doubt that they believed Johnson was unwilling to “man up,” and was, in effect, using the sanctity of his driver’s seat to hide within plain sight of them.

Following one hour and eight minutes of repairs, Johnson returned to the track, making numerous visits to pit row to make adjustments to his ride while ensuring that his not-quite-up-to-snuff Chevrolet would be able to maintain at least the required minimum lap times of 33.27 seconds. As a result of the No. 48 team’s effort, they were able to improve their finishing position from 43rd to 38th and gain 15 championship points that otherwise would have been lost.

Following the race, Johnson finally made himself accessible to the very news media that was grumbling hours earlier. But to the surprise of most in attendance, they learned quickly that perception is not always reality.

“At one point Chad [Knaus – crew chief] told me to hop out of the car – he says, ‘It’s done; we’re going to have to put it on the truck,'” explained Johnson in his post-race comments.

“I didn’t want to hop out and let the crew guys think it was done. I was going to stay in it until they pushed it up on the ramp [to the team hauler]. I wanted them to keep working on it, to find a way to get it back on the track.”

Whoops – our bad! So I guess it wasn’t all about the media. Apparently, the three-time champion was busy figuring out how to make lemonade out of the lemons he had been handed in light of his goal of winning an unprecedented fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

Of course, Johnson’s explanation made perfect sense. He was sending a subtle, but nonetheless effective message to his team that he was not ready to give up if they were not. His decision not to desert his post conveyed to his crew that he believed in them, and would be willing to take to the track with whatever they were able to salvage of the wreck.

Enough has probably been said about the skillful workmanship and single-mindedness that the No. 48 car, along with help from other HMS teams, demonstrated in the garage area Sunday afternoon. Really, for those of us that report and opine on the sport on a regular basis, their effort should not have come as any surprise. But for those of us that misinterpreted what went on with Johnson – failing to see the situation the way it really was – we need to backup a step and accept our error as a lesson learned.

You know, there is a saying about the word ASSUME… “It will make an ASS out of U and ME.” Yet those of us that chose to just assume what Johnson’s reasons were for not exiting his severely damaged car forgot the lesson that little ditty was conveying. One should always understand the facts of a situation before making conclusions. In hindsight, and with the benefit of Johnson’s explanation, we really were asses.

The only theory that I can muster for the immediate indictment of Johnson’s actions is that some of us have become far too cynical and willing to expect the worst when it comes to this sport. For we certainly did not take even a moment to consider any other explanation for him not wanting to answer media questions at the time. We just assumed – and looking back, we came to a really silly conclusion.

The incident has left me wondering just what level of self-importance some of us in the media believe we have reached that a multi-time champion would feel intimidated to discuss an on-track altercation that was not of his doing – especially a driver such as Johnson who has never been one that seems rattled by the media. In fact, most would agree that there are few drivers more skilled at fielding questions than the always-composed California native.

Looking back, of course, there was no reason, given a moment to gather himself, that Johnson would not have entertained media questions on his way to an early exit from the racetrack. And in typical Johnson style, he would have no doubt reminded everyone that he had been saying all along he did not believe [going into Texas] that the championship was locked up. He would have probably expressed his disappointment, apologized to his crew, and gave them kudos for providing him a fast race car.

In fact, depending on how talkative Johnson felt, he might have gone on to assure everyone that the No. 48 Lowe’s team would be back next week at Phoenix, and that they would be pushing as hard as they could to win the championship. Then, with a nod of his head, he would have smiled and headed off to his motorhome. That’s Jimmie Johnson’s style… and we all know it!

Nevertheless, with Johnson sitting there silently willing his crew to fix his bent racecar, some of us abandoned logic and gave way to cynicism. For no good reason, except that it would have made for an easy story – had it been true.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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