Commentary

Speed of life … and Jimmie Johnson

Updated: July 6, 2012, 3:35 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Each weekday morning as I drive my son to school, we ease through neighborhoods, down back roads and past farms until we reach North Carolina Highway 115, a quaint four-lane road that was once a major thoroughfare into Charlotte.

These days it's an off-ramp that joins tiny municipalities, where the small-town pace is just right and self-tilled gardens grow lush with delectable produce. It is Route 66 in "Cars," the lost highway for locals who want the window rolled down and the radio up. That is precisely why I enjoy it.

Cambron and I hang a left onto 115 and roll north, parallel to the railroad track. The track is eye-level, rusted and relentless and, even in hibernation, tells a bygone tale of blue-collar desire. Across the track sits the Methodist church, where I spend Sunday mornings on the Sunday mornings I don't spend in the NASCAR garage. We cruise past the fire department and the bagel shop and the filling station until we reach a moment I look forward to more each day.

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Across the highway from the Food Lion sits an old white house. It is two stories. Chipped paint reveals a cinder-block foundation that hints the house has a basement. The top story hosts a sweeping, Charleston-style porch with a waist-high railing. It, too, is chipped. Behind that railing is a row of rickety dining chairs; in one sits an old man in a red ball cap who waves to every car that passes. Every morning. Like clockwork.

Invariably I wave back, though I admit that response was long more involuntary than genuinely thoughtful. Until recently -- when my son wondered aloud why I wave to that man every day. I tried to explain the concept of courtesy, prompting Cambron to ponder why someone would sit on that porch every single day and wave at people he doesn't know.

I couldn't answer that. Only that man knows the reason. But I figure it has something to do with the speed of life. That's the lesson he taught me without ever saying a word: As you hustle to the unyielding beat of the daily drum, chasing dreams or deadlines or demands from The Man, slow the tempo and enjoy the breeze in your face and air in your lungs.

Sit a while. Drink it up while you can. And say hello.

In this instant-gratification world I appreciate that reminder. And I want my Gen-Instant children to appreciate it, too.

I broached it with Cambron. And now, as we ease through the stoplight, by the barber shop and past the veterans' memorial, we prepare for the man in the red ball cap, sitting on the porch, waving to us.

And when he slides into view … we both wave.

And I smile.

Marty,

Jimmie Johnson is the most influential athlete in America? No way in hell, man! You know there's no way that's true, Marty. If that's true why don't we see him as much as Tebow and Danica?!!! And this is coming from one of his biggest fans! PS -- Say hey to Ricky Craven for us!

-- Jack Weeton, Bangor, Maine

Being named America's Most Influential Athlete by Forbes is fantastic for Jimmie Johnson's personal brand and for NASCAR's mainstream credibility. It's the second consecutive year he's received this honor. And to me, it is quite surprising.

I'm ignorant regarding the selection criteria for Forbes, but if I were asked my opinion on the street I'd say Peyton Manning moved the needle more than any other athlete. Then I'd likely choose LeBron James or Tom Brady, or even Tim Tebow. But Manning was third on the actual list, while Tebow was second and Brady sixth.

James didn't even rank.

As far as NASCAR drivers are concerned my first inclination is that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is more influential commercially than JJ in the mainstream -- based on everything but performance, of course. Junior ranked eighth overall.

The NFL is America's strongest sports brand. It determines the standard by which every other sports league is measured -- on basically every platform. There is no disputing that fact, which is the key reason this decision is such a coup for NASCAR as a league.

In a time when the NFL is so much stronger than any other league, the fact that an athlete -- one whom many wouldn't even consider an athlete, given his trade -- from a smaller league is acknowledged on such a broad platform, it should be leveraged. NASCAR can -- and absolutely should -- leverage this.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Brandon Wade/Getty Images for Texas Motor SpeedwayJimmie Johnson influenced a lot of young minds April 13 when he visited with first-grade students at Clara Love Elementary School in Justin, Texas.

That's one thing that perplexes me about our sport. It is the most commercial of sports. Dollars make the wheel turn. Without dollars there are no race cars, and without race cars no races. And here we have an athlete who made history with five consecutive championships at the sport's highest level, in the most competitive era ever, and NASCAR did very little with it commercially. He was also named the Associated Press Athlete of the Year.

Where is the "Thanks for history" Super Bowl ad?

I'm sure there are reasons far beyond the reach of my marginal business acumen, but I don't really understand that. Witnessing history should be trumpeted from the highest mountaintop, as far as I'm concerned -- especially in a time when the league's preferred message is an upward trajectory, an emergence from the doldrums of the economic depression.

I haven't seen so much as a NASCAR-generated press release about this. I get NASCAR press releases about everything from teleconferences to executive accolades. But nothing about one of its biggest stars being named America's Most Influential Athlete in one of America's most influential publications?

Weird.

To find out why, I called Steve Phelps, NASCAR's chief marketing officer. He's at the forefront of how the NASCAR message is disseminated. I learned a ton.

In part because of the dynamic mentioned above, NASCAR over the past 18 months has redefined its driver-marketing strategy. It created an entire division to assist in that regard, and is still hiring the staff that will facilitate the new plan. The push is now, more than ever, to make the drivers the focal point of the marketing push. That is the entire reason for the new driver-development group, Phelps said.

"Through our research we saw that, for some reason, our drivers were not resonating as much as they should," Phelps said. "So we said 'How can we help that, in order to help the drivers?' If you look at our advertising this year it's far more driver-focused."

Phelps said NASCAR has requested the same marketing approach of its media partners.

"That must be pushed and pushed and pushed: It's all about the drivers," he said. "We'll push that through every channel at our disposal -- movies or mingling with other celebrities, and letting people understand how dangerous what they do is.

"These are gladiators putting their lives on the line every week. That's a cool and exciting thing, and we want to get that across to our existing fans -- and, more importantly, our future fans."

The fact is that this topic is far bigger than just Jimmie Johnson. This Forbes accolade merely piqued my curiosity, and is a conduit to the larger question about driver marketing.

"Jimmie is a great champion and will probably be a great champion again. He's one of our greatest stars," Phelps said. "We fight a bit of a balance on this one. He's a five-time champion, absolutely, but we have to try to not focus on just one guy. Over the past three years we've probably used Jimmie more than any single driver. And we should. He was our champion.

"There's definitely a shift, both in resources that the sanctioning body is brining to bear, both on communication side and with helping drivers with what their brand is. Each driver is an individual and unique, so they each need to have their own avenue."

Phelps said NASCAR doesn't spend substantial dollars on advertising because, well, it requires substantial dollars. They feel well-served by what they term "institutional media," i.e., their media partners such as ESPN, FOX and Turner Sports. So they spend the majority of their resources on obtaining "unearned media."

Phelps said when NASCAR learned of Forbes' decision to choose Johnson, a team of folks went to work immediately, calling media outlets nationwide, beating the drum to get coverage. The reception of that effort from mainstream media continues to improve, he said.

"We're getting better at it. They're becoming more receptive," Phelps said. "That goes back to the communication strategy. We have to get better outside our core media. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are crossover stars. Carl Edwards can be a crossover star. They're guys who are good in front of the camera, who are well-spoken and want to be there.

"Look at [Dale Earnhardt] Junior. He could be a crossover star, and has great name recognition. But he just doesn't want to do it. And that's fine. That's not in his DNA. Not everyone has to like that kind of thing.

"Driving our stars, and getting them front and center with our media -- and more importantly crossover media -- will be very important for the success of the sport long-term. Traditionally we haven't done a good enough job with that. We realized 18 months ago that must improve."

Song of the week: "Comin' Around," by Josh Thompson. This track is fantastic; stopped me in my tracks the first time he played it for me. Because I lived it. Every word. Thompson is among Nashville's more underrated writers. He has a grit-in-the-pen that's rare in that town these days, an honesty reared while pouring concrete in the family business back in Wisconsin. He doesn't just sing blue-collar. He is blue-collar.

I see a lot of Church in him. He's building a rowdy underground crowd in the bars and clubs, playing every beer joint that'll have him. Radio will be comin' around soon. His time's coming.

"I'm comin' around, I'm figurin' out …
A lot of things I thought I knew …
I never dreamed I'd be seein' things …
From this point of view …
Still a little ways from slowin' it all the way down …
But I'm comin' around …
I'm still a little more lost than I am found …
But I'm comin' around …"

Brilliant.

Marty,

I applaud Bristol for working to bring back the old style of racing. But how confident are you we'll actually see the old style of racing? Did Bristol do the right thing?

-- Jack Martin, Kingsport, Tenn.

Bristol Motor Speedway built a legend -- and a ticket waiting list -- on unforgiving 500-lap duels that forced drivers to have the ability to deftly move competitors out of the groove to pass or the willingness to dump them. It was the standard edge-of-your-seat thrill show for the paying fan, and therefore the industry.

You never knew what would happen on any given lap, and the sold-out crowds proved it.

When the track was reconfigured and progressive banking added, that dynamic died. Drivers suddenly had multiple grooves from which to choose and passing was made easier. That is wonderful for drivers and terrible for fans. Most fans, anyway. Track owner Bruton Smith said on "NASCAR Now" on Wednesday that 60 percent of fans enjoyed the progressively banked configuration. If that's the case, that 40 percent was a very vocal minority.

So back we'll come in August with a ground-down top groove that has less banking, thereby theoretically resulting in one fewer racing groove. The hope is that it resurrects the door-banging bliss that long defined Bristol.

Here's my fear: that the dwindling crowds aren't the result of the competition at all; that they are, rather, a result of the economy. Tickets, gas and hotels are outlandishly expensive. If I'm a fan and I can only choose one Bristol race per season, I'm going in August. Every time. The official crowd tally last August was 156,000.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope this works and the place is full for every race again.

The driving corps certainly isn't thrilled. Greg Biffle said the track is wasting its time. Kevin Harvick said it was obvious that Smith wanted no current drivers' opinions, "so he went to Darrell [Waltrip]" instead.

Yikes.

Marty,

Rockingham made Kansas and Texas look like F1 races.

-- Michael Black, Boston

There were more cautions in my daughter's preschool trike-a-thon, man.

Marty,

Is there any logic to Tony Stewart's shaving routine? Some weeks he is clean and some he looks like Grizzly Adams!

-- Cindy Witmer

Interesting question, Cindy. I asked Smoke's people for you, and they tell me he shaves on race day every week. Otherwise, I'm told, the blade is reserved for sponsor (and some) media functions. Smoke is a furry somebody. If he ever gets a Jack Link's sponsorship, he could make some hilarious commercials doubling as that Sasquatch out in the woods.

Marty,

We love you on Twitter! You're hilarious! But I wondered how has Twitter affected your job?

-- Gail Williams, Freeport, Miss.

Twitter has dramatically impacted traditional media, Gail, more than anything else has during my career. The 24-hour news cycle no longer exists. With Twitter it is the 24-second news cycle. Everyone has a voice. Everyone can disseminate information -- including the subjects we cover. They have the ability to control the message real-time. Wading through it offers a unique challenge for us all. Every tweet is an on-the-record quote, and must be treated as such. It hasn't redefined news, but it's redefined "the record."

That's my time this week, Team. Thanks for sharing it with me. And thanks for being NASCAR fans.

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