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Voice of Vito: Jimmie Johnson Continuing to Dominate in Spite of a Dreaded Disease

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 fanbase 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’s 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 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 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 not 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.

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 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’s 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 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 Gordon’s 13 wins were compared to 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 1, 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 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.”

Gordon, in a way, picked up where Earnhardt had left off, and 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. 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 ’90s to 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, Fla. 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.

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