- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
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Upon the descent of the 3 back down to earth, back into Cup, the only thing harder on hard-core traditionalists would be if it were driven by Jimmie Johnson, who in so many ways is antithetical to the Dale Earnhardt persona.
Johnson's sheer and total niceness, I sense, is what rubs so many of you the wrong way, what with all your remembrances of supposedly the toughest, and certainly the gruffest, driver ever to stand at the pinnacle of NASCAR.
Just the other night, at a holiday gathering in my little town, I heard the yearning of Everyman articulated again -- "Seems like since Earnhardt died [slow shake of the head] it just hasn't been the same" -- as I've heard it so very, very many times among the common folk for these nearly 13 years. Rarely does a week go by that I don't.
The yearning is deep and simple: You want a badass.
They don't make those anymore in NASCAR. That's all I can give you to ponder over the holidays: hard candy, to chew on as you will.
The 3 will henceforth be driven by a Jimmie Johnson disciple and emulator, Austin Dillon. Niceness will be the norm. No growling, no bluster, no gruffness.
Back at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a couple of days before Johnson won his sixth championship, the three contending car owners were sitting around attesting to his greatness, and then, out of the blue: "I'll throw [in] one other thing," said Richard Childress, Dillon's grandfather and the man who sent Earnhardt to six of his seven titles.
From the man who used to custom-reinforce Earnhardt's cars so he could push others around without damaging his own, from the closest friend Earnhardt ever had, from the only one who shared Earnhardt's view from the pinnacle all those years and knew better than anyone just how much Earnhardt meant to the common folk, came this, thrown in:
"Jimmie is a role model for our sport that is unbelievable," Childress said, and then alluded to Austin Dillon and his younger brother, Ty, who, inevitably, with the support of Pop Pop, is also on a path to Cup.
"Both of the grandsons, that's who they want to be like," Childress said. "That's who they talk to. There's a lot of other drivers. [But] If you want to be a Cup driver today, that's the role model you want."
ESPN's Marty Smith pointed out in a recent column that all of Johnson's peers love him, even as he beats them.
From the Dillons, throughout the garages of Cup and Nationwide and Trucks, even down to a once-volatile Tony Stewart, who has mellowed so much upon dealing with sponsors directly as a team owner...
They all want to be like Jimmie. He does it right, in the eyes of everybody but Everyman. Like niceness or not, that is the trending persona, the pervasive future of NASCAR demeanor.
At the bedrock is that corporate sponsors demand it. Having known Earnhardt when he first broke in, clinging to mediocre rides by his fingernails, then making his splash with the unsponsored though wealthy owner Rod Osterlund, I've often wondered whether Earnhardt even could have gotten a ride in today's climate. The personality and the driving were too rough.
Childress knew what a tough, temperamental and rough-hewn guy he was taking on in Earnhardt, back in the early 1980s. There was room for that then. This is now. Even the man who made the cars tough enough that the Intimidator couldn't break them, and let Earnhardt speak his mind, is going the Jimmie Johnson route.
Why is Everyman rubbed so raw by Johnson and his ilk? I'll have to go back to what I've long called Barkley's Law.
When Jeff Gordon was in his prime and being booed thunderously virtually everywhere, I had occasion to speak about him with a self-described "dedicated Jeff Gordon fan," Charles Barkley.
Barkley at the time had created a public uproar by saying, "I am not a role model," at the height of his NBA career. So Barkley was somewhat exasperated that fans who cried out for role models had finally gotten one, Gordon, and then were so quick to reject him.
Why, I asked, might that be?
"Because people are just," Barkley said and paused a moment, "nuts."
Barkley's Law of society, I've called it ever since.
But people being nuts in the '90s had an outlet, a foil: Earnhardt. He rose to near deity in NASCAR Nation largely on his own, but also because he was the Un-Gordon. It was a public seesaw. The more they booed Gordon, the more they cheered Earnhardt.
Now, I feel for people who are just nuts, because they no longer have a choice. The future holds only a steady diet of role models being crammed down their throats.
Niceness reigns in today's NASCAR. That makes six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, the poster boy for unwavering niceness, the perfect role model.