LONG POND, Pa. – Jimmie Johnson is one of the few drivers who did not gain my support upon my reentry into NASCAR. Although I had sworn my allegiances were to all, not one, Johnson seemed to miss that cut.
My opinion was not unpopular. Many fans were not won over by the slick, calm and winning guy from California.
Johnson’s introduction to Cup in 2002 led to a fifth place in points for the season; most impressive. Johnson’s results from 2003 and 2004 were even more awe-inspiring – two second-place finishes back to back.
The next year, 2005, Johnson once again finished fifth. He and his team had gotten so close to championships, but had yet to seal the deal.
Four years after his Cup debut Johnson and the Hendrick Motorsports team led by Chad Knaus changed all of that as they won their first cup in 2006.
“Dialed in,” “well-oiled machine,” “evil genius” and other choice sayings were rolling off tongues as Johnson’s first championship season bled into a second, then a third, an unprecedented fourth, and a history-making fifth by the time 2010 was in the books.
The juggernaut, as it were, didn’t just seem unstoppable. For half a decade, it was decidedly impenetrable.
Last year Johnson and company were finally derailed. Tony Stewart handily won the title and Johnson had to settle for sixth.
I would argue that was the best thing to happen for Johnson’s career. Although his staid fans never faltered, the rest of the “NASCAR Nation” found his dominance at best annoying – and at worst intolerable.
I fell in the annoyed category.
But, when I truly started to pay attention writing race recap after race recap last year, I noticed how brilliant Johnson and his team truly are and I was fascinated.
A bad day for the No. 48 team was usually salvaged to a top-10 finish – a bad day, indeed. Johnson, Knaus and the team never gave up, always plugged away and quietly did their business.
Unlike many others, Johnson’s post-race interviews are thoughtful, positive and never inflammatory. He maintains cohesion in his team and always looks to the future.
But even when Johnson tangled with Kurt Busch last year, that, I would conspire, was good for Johnson’s image. The Johnson who rarely showed much emotion, especially anger, was a bit hot-headed and it was fun for viewers.
This season Johnson once again appears on the move. The goal, as is well known since his debut, is to win championships. With three wins – Darlington, Charlotte, and Indianapolis – the No. 48 team is well on its way to the Chase and quite possibly another championship.
Johnson’s ripple effect in NASCAR is far from over. There is much left in this underrated champion. He has yet to get the respect in the sport that he has so plainly earned, a fact that stymies me to this day.
It seems to me that distance will shine a brighter more friendly light on Johnson and his incredible feats.
In the meantime, now that he is not the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, more and more people in the stands are offering their cheers.
That was clearly evident at Indy where Johnson won the Brickyard 400 last weekend. Cheers could be heard for the driver who, heretofore, was getting booed rather consistently for his dominating trends.
But perhaps absence makes the heart grow fonder. Or “NASCAR Nation,” like the whole of America, loves an underdog. Whatever the reason, I enjoy watching history unfold with Johnson.
Will Johnson tie or even surpass the seven championships of Richard “The King” Petty and Dale “The Intimidator” Earnhardt? Will he find his way past his mentor, car owner and teammate Jeff Gordon on the all-time wins list?
I’m not sure what Johnson’s legacy in the sport will be; I just know there will be one. And, I’m sure there will always be detractors of his career, but I’m no longer one of them.
I look anxiously to the future to see how much Johnson can accomplish. History, ladies and gentlemen, is in the making and we are all bearing witness to it.
Who doesn’t love a champion, especially one trying to make a comeback.