Fans love to hate on Jimmie Johnson

LAS VEGAS -- The line of people hoping for an autograph from Richard Petty at the Las Vegas Convention Center is overwhelming. The King seems just as popular now with car enthusiasts attending the SEMA Show as he was 34 years ago while owning NASCAR's premier series with four titles and 67 victories in a five-year span.

Petty never experienced the so-called fan hatred that Jimmie Johnson, on the brink of an unprecedented fourth-straight championship, has during his most dominating seasons. He never was made to feel like his overwhelming success stunk up the show or ruined the sport as Johnson has been.

So I asked why?

"A different society," said the man wearing his signature cowboy hat and dark sunglasses.

Well that explains it. No, really, it does.

Drivers during Petty's era were considered heroes. They could do things with a car that ordinary people couldn't, risking life and limb every time they climbed behind the wheel. Most of them endured incredibly hard times to reach their level of stardom.

They also represented the working-class man and woman. They drove from track to track in pickup trucks with their cars hitched to a trailer. They didn't own fancy jets or spend the weekend in motor coaches that cost more than many fans' homes.

Today's drivers, even the ones that endured hard times to get here, live a life most Americans can't relate to with jets and helicopters and celebrity friends. They drive machines that seemingly are indestructible and all look the same.

They still are heroes, but the larger-than-life image isn't quite the same.

Neither are the fans.

"Society has changed in terms of respect," Petty said. "Nobody respects things like they used to. Nobody. Even us old people."

Petty makes a good point, but in the interest of fair play, I sought the advice of others. I turned to the fans, asking why they can't embrace and appreciate the history that Johnson is about to achieve.

The response supported much of what Petty philosophized, but it went much deeper. It's not so much that fans hate Johnson and that he dominates. They hate what he represents.

As Jason explained, Johnson embodies everything he believes NASCAR chairman Brian France wants the sport to be: clean-cut with drivers who thank their sponsors and speak no ill will toward anyone "even if someone punched their grandmother."

Johnson is a lightning rod for those who hate the Chase, and his dominance of the 10-race playoff makes him a "natural target for anyone and everyone that has a beef with the flawed Chase system."

"Johnson is the physical embodiment of NASCAR's larger problems," Jason said. "His success makes him the face of the sport and so all of NASCAR's problems are cast upon him [fairly or unfairly].

"I know NASCAR claims the racing is more exciting than ever and stats prove this to a degree. Yes, the on-track performance is better but there is a major component missing: personalities."

Jason referred to the Darrell Waltrips and Cale Yarboroughs who were as legendary for the things they did and said off the track as they were for things they did on the track. He's got a point. Many credit the donnybrook between Yarborough and the Allison brothers following the 1979 Daytona 500 as the catalyst for taking the sport nationally.

"Yeah, the on-track stuff was boring and cumbersome back in the '70s and '80s, but there was no shortage of excitement with guys like Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough," Jason said. "But Johnson? I watched him on 'The Tonight Show' recently and he honestly was one of the most boring guests ever.

"People see that and how NASCAR seems to push him as their poster child. They see that and just take all their frustration with NASCAR out on the 48. So in short, he's a product of Brian France and NASCAR."

That's not entirely fair to Johnson. He is funny and engaging. He's far from vanilla, as many proclaim. Vanilla guys don't surf on the top of golf carts, or fall off of them and break their wrists.

"It's not Jimmie's fault," wrote another fan, Dave. "He's a product of the current NASCAR system. The way NASCAR penalizes drivers for showing emotion, the 10-race season that is the Chase, etc. Johnson is just the embodiment of that.

"I don't blame him and [crew chief Chad] Knaus for taking full advantage of the flawed Chase. I blame NASCAR."

And not all fans hate Johnson. As Scott said, "Hate is a strong word."

"I'm just bored with his dominance, which is in a way kind of a sideways comment," he wrote. "I don't think I can ever remember a time when Jimmie had a sound bite that was worthy of replay on 'SportsCenter' because he just doesn't seem to rock the boat.

"He seems robotic in how he approaches racing. He's obviously a great driver, but it helps that he's got a genius of some sort with him [in Chad] that has found some way to make this car work that no one else has."

Many I spoke with at the SEMA Show echoed these thoughts, but to be completely thorough I sought the thoughts of a sports psychologist. A member of the University of Nebraska athletic staff, Jack Stark has worked with professional athletes in all sports, including NASCAR.

He also has performed studies of fans, so he is somewhat of an expert on this subject. In essence, he agrees with Petty that as society has changed, so have fans. He says it goes all the way back to Shakespeare when it was about good versus evil, but Stark narrowed the real change to 20-25 years ago.

Some of it, Stark says, has to do with the media. Fans are exposed to so much more than they were in the past when many of the negative things their heroes did never saw the light of day.

Some of it, he says, has to do with the economy, with the split between the working middle class and the upper class becoming wider than ever.

"You want to see people that struggle and stuff do well," Stark said. "It seems like the same people get good things over and over. The rich get all the good stuff and the have-nots don't."

In other words, there are 48 Haters for the same reason there are the Hated Yankees.

"The Yankees are dominating, so people don't want to like them," Stark said. "The darn thing about those guys [Johnson's team] is they're so good they make it look easy. But they really work hard and this couldn't happen to a classier guy than Jimmie Johnson."

Unfortunately, the fans don't see the Johnson who grew up with little and struggled in lower series. They see the Johnson who stepped into great equipment at Hendrick Motorsports in 2002 and seemingly had the best of everything given to him.

As 381whyman wrote, "We don't hate Jimmie. We think he gets too much credit. His cars are better. Chad K. is the best by far."

This person went on to say he really hates Kurt Busch, but that's another story.

The bottom line, Stark surmised, is fans are fickle and always will complain.

"What happens is no matter who you are and what you do you're going to have some detractors," he said. "Sometimes it's from the smaller minority, but the smaller minority can be really vocal and seem like it's bigger than it is."

That's how Johnson believes and hopes it is. He reminds you his souvenir sales and fan base have risen steadily over the past few years and that there was a big spike after last season's championship run.

He also reminds you that he's been in the sport only eight years and wonders where the popularity of past stars such as Petty, Yarborough and even Dale Earnhardt was at the same point.

"I would love to have the largest fan base and other aspects of what other drivers have, but man, I'm really happy with what's gone on in my life," he said. "I'm very thankful for the solid fan base that I have and I think popularity is changing big-time."

Yarborough There are a lot of people pulling against him. I hear it every day. I don't know why that's happening here. Jimmie is a fine fellow. I say if he can do it, then let him do it."

-- Cale Yarborough

Teammate Jeff Gordon felt the same way when he dominated, winning three of four titles between 1995 and '98.

"I was loving it," the four-time champion said. "And it didn't matter to me what other people thought."

But Gordon wasn't hated just because he won. He was hated because he took wins and titles away from Earnhardt, whose popularity was at an all-time high.

He had a rival, so the fans were divided. Nobody has been good enough to give Johnson a consistent rival, so he gets ganged up on.

"The more you dominate, the more they divide and that's only a good thing for this sport, as well as for Jimmie," Gordon said.

Maybe he's right. Yarborough had plenty of rivals when he dominated with three consecutive titles (1976-78) and he never felt the hatred he's seen with Johnson.

"There are a lot of people pulling against him," Yarborough said. "I hear it every day. I don't know why that's happening here. Jimmie is a fine fellow. I say if he can do it, then let him do it."

Jeff Burton, who is somewhat of a resident psychologist for Cup drivers, said it best a few weeks ago in Charlotte.

"You never get your just due in the era that you're in," he said. "It's always appreciated more later because the people you are racing against, the people you are competing against, don't want to give it to you.

"They will look back on it later with much greater perspective and a much broader view."

They also will be from, as Petty says, a different society. Who knows what that will create?

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.