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Johnson's greatness is undeniable

10/2/2013 - NASCAR

There is an ESPN promotional spot, airing regularly, that I wish you'd pay attention to. And I'm not trying to increase ratings. I'm trying to save your sanity.

In fact, don't even wait for TV. Go to YouTube and see it and hear it. Just Google "YouTube ESPN NASCAR best driver ever."

Listen closely.

Obviously, the intent of that promo is to encourage you to watch our Chase telecasts.

But it's much more meaningful, maybe therapeutic, for you, personally, as a Jimmie Johnson hater. Best I can tell, you are the majority of NASCAR Nation.

This has to do with the old psychotherapists' mantra that if you can't change your situation, maybe you can change the way you look at it.

The scenario has Johnson walking along the starting grid just before a race.

The voiceover begins, "Winning a sixth championship might add to your legacy -- but is it enough to make you a legend?"

And here you'll howl, "NOOOOOOO!"

He walks past a Richard Petty impersonator, and then a Dale Earnhardt impersonator, as the voice says, "Because there's a big difference between being the best driver of your generation ... and being the best driver ever."

Johnson gets into his car. And he's off ... toward ... we don't know what, yet. Maybe toward establishing himself, at least to the mainstream public and the general sports world outside of NASCAR, as its best driver ever.

He may not get there. But he might. If you don't like him, can't you at least do him the courtesy of being fascinated with where he's headed?

Don't you understand what you saw Sunday at Dover? If ever the overwhelming fan favorite, Dale Earnhardt Jr., had a chance to beat Johnson head-to-head, it was then.

Earnhardt had a car at least equal to Johnson's, so don't give me that about Johnson getting superior equipment.

On the last pit stop, Earnhardt took four tires, Johnson two. So I don't want to hear it about Chad Knaus propping up Johnson with pit strategy. The crew chief guessed wrong.

This race was won on the sheer will and talent of the driver. After the restart it wasn't much of a contest, "Jimmie being one of the best drivers the sport has ever seen," Earnhardt said after finishing second.

How had Johnson held him off? "Just drove the s--- out that thing," Johnson said, just being honest, and in the process saying it all about how he drives, all the time.

For sheer car control, for making the car behave like an arm or a leg, a part of himself, he is as good or better than Earnhardt Sr. For savvy at finding alternative lines on a racetrack, to compensate for a car not working optimally, Johnson is right up there with David Pearson. In tenaciousness, Johnson is as dogged as Cale Yarborough.

Out of Dover, Johnson has roared up to within one-race striking distance of Chase leader Matt Kenseth, and, magnificent as Kenseth has been all season, everybody seems to sense the momentum Johnson's 48 team is so known for.

If there is a sixth title, then the buzz -- for the rest of Johnson's career -- will be about whether he can win a seventh, and tie Petty and Earnhardt Sr. With a seventh, the buzz -- and, I suppose, the boos -- would grow deafening over whether he can surpass them with an eighth or more.

That's why I don't think another Johnson title this year would be so bad for NASCAR. We all know NASCAR fans love to hate much more than they love to love. They're happiest when they're unhappy.

That's the only reason I can imagine for the grumbling. I've been covering this stuff for going on 40 years, and had a pretty good take on every driver in that time, and Johnson is easily, consistently, among the three nicest guys who have ever played this game -- Petty and Benny Parsons being the other two.

No way do I buy the grousing that JJ had everything handed to him. I heard the same thing said about Petty in his prime. Only by a near miracle -- Jeff Gordon spotting an obscure, likely nowhere-bound kid mastering old Darlington Raceway during a Nationwide test -- did JJ ever get so much as a look at Hendrick Motorsports.

And listen: The guy came up every bit as hard as Earnhardt Sr. Johnson's father ran a bulldozer, his mother drove a school bus, and they sacrificed such things as nice housing so their boys could race motorcycles. Because they loved them. No big dreams there. Just fun and happiness.

Yes, Johnson has Knaus. Petty had Dale Inman. Earnhardt had Kirk Shelmerdine and Andy Petree. Great drivers always need great crew chiefs. Nothing new there.

Johnson is resigned to the legions of haters. He can live with them. He has to. What else is he going to do? Quit, just because the fans think he wins too much?

Asked at Dover whether his beating of Earnhardt heads-up dug him in deeper with the Earnhardt legions, Johnson said, "It doesn't matter; I piss them off regardless."

Then he said the profoundest thing of all about himself and NASCAR Nation: "Just me breathing pisses some of them off."

He takes great comfort and enormous pride that Sports Nation as a whole celebrates, rather than denigrates, him. The stars of the other sports recognize him as a peer, see his greatness, see the potential that hurtles on and on.

And that's why a sixth, seventh, eighth JJ championship wouldn't be bad for NASCAR. A nation respects what a hard-core won't.

Petty once told me about walking into the lobby of a New York hotel with Joe Namath and Wilt Chamberlain. They were doing a promotion for ABC Sports. The clerk at the hotel desk looked up -- now remember, this is 7-foot-1 Wilt Chamberlain and the celebrated Broadway Joe -- and the clerk looks at Petty and starts going "vrrrrooommmmmm" and makes steering-wheel motions with his hands.

He recognized Petty first. Why? Because Petty was THE overpowering figure of his sport, the only driver known outside it. He was bigger than the sport itself. The general public recognized and adored him.

Yet among NASCAR fans, at about that same time, Petty waved a hand out toward the Daytona grandstands and told me, "Half those people come to see me win, and the other half come to see me get beat."

There were plenty of fans who didn't like Richard Petty in his prime. He won too much. He'd had everything "handed to him," they claimed.

Rusty Wallace once told about sitting on a plane and the guy next to him asking what he did, and Wallace said he drove NASCAR and the guy said, "NASCAR? What's that?" and Wallace said, "You know, like Richard Petty," and the guy said "Oh, yeah! Richard Petty! OK."

A nation respects and celebrates great achievement, and is fascinated by figures soaring to heights.

So Jimmie Johnson is, and will be, appreciated -- everywhere but in his own realm.