A mere two weeks ago, I penned an article asking if Jimmie Johnson wins too much, and my conclusion was that he’s just boring. After JJ put up another solid performance in Sunday’s season ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway en route to capturing his sixth championship in eight years, moving him to within one title of the all-time number held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, I found myself revisiting the question. And the position I came to, the one I must now try to live with, is humbling. As much as I want to, as much as I’ve spoken about it in articles and with friends, I simply cannot hate Jimmie Johnson.
The #48 Lowe’s race team is a dynasty. Johnson and Chad Knaus may be the best driver/crew chief combination in the history of the sport, and it shows in the six championships they’ve won in only 12 years together (Earnhardt won his seventh title in his 18th year of competition). And the systematic, machine-like approach with which they’ve won those titles is remarkable.
Despite what I’ll say more often than not, Johnson is not boring. He’s not particularly animated, he doesn’t tend to show a lot of emotion, but listen to his in-car radio, and without question, after every single win, you can hear Johnson screaming and showing that it is still a big deal for him to win. Every time. The quiet confidence with which Johnson approaches his job can make him seem cocky, and is one of the reasons he’s drawn criticism. I often took this view as well, but the data simply isn’t there. Every time he’s asked about it in interviews, he stays humble, says he simply just doesn’t want to let the hooplah and the distractions get in, and that’s why he’s quiet. Unfortunately for his detractors, the evidence to the contrary isn’t there. I’m pretty sure he’s telling the truth.
But, emotion sells tickets, right? Drama’s what we need. That’s true, and NASCAR could use a few sparks in places, but as good as his emotions and outbursts may be for the sport, imagine if Kyle Busch were champion. He’s got personality in spades, but do we really want an asshat at the head of the table? 2012 champion Brad Keselowski isn’t as bad as Busch, but his tendency to speak his mind leads to just as many buffoonish comments as it does genuine insights, and his failure to make the Chase in the year following his title run didn’t help. But Johnson, he doesn’t make these mistakes. He’ll give his opinion on the sport if asked, and usually his views are pretty spot on, but for the most part, he’d rather get in the car and drive.
This lack of hotheadedness, the way he can go out and lay a beating on the field time after time, like his dominant performance at Texas in the second to last race of the year, in which he led 255 of 334 laps, can make it all seem a little…mundane. It makes his accomplishments look not so special, like he’s got the car set on cruise control while he plays video games. But the fact of the matter is that Johnson drives an 800-horsepower metal monster on wheels, often reaching speeds of 200 mph and experiencing astronaut-level G forces on a weekly basis. And he does this amidst a pack of 41 other men, and one woman, doing the same thing. And yet, he does it better. We are undoubtedly in the most competitive era in the history of NASCAR, and yet Johnson was able to amass five championship runs in a row from 2006-2010, before taking a couple of years off and doing it again (while still finishing in the top 10 in the standings in the two non-title years). As much as people like to cry for the good old days and talk about how Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt were true drivers, their competition wasn’t as steep as that which Johnson has had to face.
I’m not a Jimmie Johnson fan. I never will be, probably. But I respect what he’s done, and as much as I’ve tried to ignore the countless articles about his dedication to his physical training regimen, his dedication to his family, and his dedication to his friends, I also respect him as a man. If given the opportunity, I’d share a few beers with him, and at the end of the day, I’d go back and proudly tell everyone I knew, because he’s truly become one of the legends of NASCAR.
The scary thing is, he’s not done. Not by a long shot. Johnson’s career is far from over, and I’ll say right now that he’ll pass seven title mark, will probably get to eight, and might go farther than that.
I might never like Jimmie Johnson on the race track, but I respect him, and I always will. And, as much as it pains me to say this, as a Jeff Gordon fan who fondly remembers his days of dominance and will never forget the fact that JG would have five titles were it not for the implementation of the Chase format, I’ll admit it now, and then I don’t want to hear about it again:
Jimmie Johnson is the greatest driver in the history of NASCAR.