Saturday, November 1, 2008
Jimmie Johnson, champion of the people? He absolutely should be
By Ed Hinton ESPN.com
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. just wishes you knew Jimmie Johnson as he does.
If you did, Earnhardt wouldn't be the only one cheered thunderously, unanimously during driver introductions on Sundays.
"It's unfortunate," Earnhardt says of the sad situation, "and I talk to Jimmie about it all the time."
Johnson, whose father ran heavy equipment for a living and whose mother drove a school bus to make ends meet, is as much of a man of the people as Earnhardt's late revered father was.
Like the elder Earnhardt, Johnson came up with no set plan for stardom, no money, just sheer desire and talent.
But the public doesn't want to hear it.
Earnhardt Jr. grew up privileged -- though his childhood wasn't exactly rosy -- and yet the public deems him a folk hero who can do no wrong.
"I've always been able to say whatever I wanted and act however I wanted to act," Earnhardt says. "And when I tell Jimmie, 'Hey, man, you ought to be more like that, be more open and just be yourself,' he says, 'I can't do that like you can do it.' I don't really understand why."
Earnhardt had the way paved for him with the public. Nobody ever handed Johnson anything. I know you don't believe that, but that doesn't make it any less the truth.
A couple of years ago, Johnson said he'd never known anything but speaking with political correctness out of dire necessity, to please the sponsors that were necessary for his struggle up every rung of his career.
You get in that always-guarded mindset, and it's hard to break out, to set yourself free.
Finding his voice with the public has been much harder for Johnson than finding forward bite up off the corners on his way to more and more uncanny wins -- 39 and rolling on, sometimes in lousy-handling cars.
Telling the public that this is who he is, take it or leave it, has been a more mountainous climb than gunning for three straight championships for the first time since the little bulldog, Cale Yarborough, did it 30 years ago.
But you know what?
Jimmie Johnson is getting there. On Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, he sort of declared his freedom.
"To be honest with you, I don't really care what people think anymore," he said. "I've spent my whole life, my whole career, worrying about that crap. And it's done nothing but confuse people.
"So I'm just climbing in my car, doing my job, driving my ass off and taking it from there."
The self-liberation came suddenly, surprisingly (maybe even to Johnson himself) in midstatement.
The button-down look may fit Hendrick Motorsports, but it's a big difference from the way Jimmie Johnson was raised.
He'd opened that statement carefully enough, in reply to my question about whether he wishes the public knew him better, and therefore might not boo him so much.
"I feel that coming in and driving for Jeff [Gordon] and Rick [Hendrick] in some ways created that negative tone," he said. "People who didn't like Jeff instantly didn't like the 48. But I'm my own personality, I'm my own driver, and I really feel like I've created my own mark in the sport."
Since he has been at Cup level, no one has won more races than he has, with 39 in just under seven seasons. Down the stretch, no one has been in the hunt for the championship more often -- he has been in the big league every single season.
If you ask his crew chief, Chad Knaus, Johnson should be working on his fifth straight championship, because "we gave away" the season titles of 2004 and '05, Knaus feels. He blames himself and not his driver.
No one, whether you know anything about NASCAR or not, could question those last eight laps at Atlanta on Sunday, when Johnson shot from 11th to finish second -- flying, darting, dodging, risking this year's title on every pass on every waning lap.
But when it comes to accepting his story, his family's doing without the nicest houses and the nicest cars just so their three boys could have fun racing dirt bikes and off-road either you give him that credit or you don't, and he'll leave you to your own opinion.
"My story has been out there about how hard I worked to get here," Johnson said. "The simple upbringing I had in El Cajon, Calif. And how far NASCAR was away."
He's still very proud of that, "but I can't spend my whole career trying to say, 'Hey, you need to respect me. You need to look at my upbringing, because you might be a bigger fan of mine.'"
Earnhardt's agonizing over the relationship between his close friend and teammate and the public is growing less warranted. Still, if only you knew
"He'd give you the shirt off his back if you needed it," Earnhardt said. "He's always treated me that way anyways."
Yet for this decent, humble, brilliant driver, the media at TMS this weekend is not acknowledging the superiority of Johnson and his 48 team to everyone else in NASCAR.
No, my colleagues are here clamoring for a way to change the Chase because Johnson is running away with it, and we can't stand it because there is so little drama left to write and talk about this year.
It is not at all that the Chase system is that bad. It is that Johnson is that good.
Hear Jeff Burton, sage of NASCAR:
"When somebody does it better than everybody else, don't talk about how the point system messed up," Burton admonished the media here. "Talk about how good they're doing. That's what the focus ought to be.
"Listen, man, if they go on to win this thing, they've done it better than everybody else. That's the end of the story."
Do you understand now? Jimmie Johnson and his team are the best in NASCAR. It's not even close. He has earned his way to the pinnacle; earned respect of the magnitude of Dale Earnhardt, Yarborough and Richard Petty; and given up worrying about whether he'll ever get it.
He's just "driving my ass off and taking it from there."
End of story.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.