The headline on the sports website touted NASCAR’s Champions Week in Las Vegas that began Tuesday. The can’t-miss photo above the headline was of a smiling Dale Earnhardt Jr. looking very dapper.
Funny, I thought the 2013 champion was Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson has dominated stock car racing like Tiger Woods dominated golf before his fall from grace. Johnson is the most successful stock car driver of his generation and maybe the best in the colorful history of NASCAR.
He has won six Sprint Cup championships. Only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr., with seven each, have won more. Johnson has dominated the marathon that is a racing season that begins in February at Daytona and ends nine months later in Homestead, Fla.
He isn’t tainted by even the hint of drugs, anger management issues or infidelity. He neither taunts nor flaunts. He doesn’t have signature accessories like Petty’s cowboy hat and sunglasses. He doesn’t have a nickname like Earnhardt Sr.’s Intimidator.
He’s Jimmie, and still gets confused with a former football coach named Jimmy Johnson.
Jimmie’s last name isn’t Petty or Earnhardt and he may never step out of their shadows. At age 38, Johnson has an excellent chance to win his seventh title.
He has the same chance to win his eighth.
If you could think of his Hendrick Motorsports team as that, they’d be on the same level with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees. But you can’t or won’t. You say drivers can’t be compared to other athletes; the race car does all the work.
Forgetting that a driver has to be fit physically to make the decisions mentally after 300 or 500 miles in a sweat box racing at speeds up to 200 mph. Not athletes? To win they must train as athletes.
But let’s go back to NASCAR, where one apple has outshined the other apples. Johnson is king of his sport. Except older fans will say there can be only one King and that’s Richard Petty.
I went to Bill Ryan, Jr., owner of the Maine Red Claws but not too long ago, the owner of Oxford Plains Speedway and co-host of a weekly radio show that invited listeners to call in. Where’s the respect, I asked. Where’s the love?
“I think there’s a bit of a disconnect that’s new to the sport,” said Ryan.
“NASCAR has changed. Race fans had expected to relate to the Pettys and Earnhardts. They were like their buddies down at the garage that fixed their car.”
NASCAR went corporate years ago. Drivers have, too. They can earn millions, live in gated communities, fly their own planes. They’re rock stars, entertaining the masses but no longer living with the masses. They’ve become like star baseball players but it took NASCAR fans time to wake up to that.
An irony is that Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR’s most popular driver and one of its most elusive. Ryan once saw him squeeze between race car haulers at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to avoid being seen in the garage area.
Maybe Johnson is too telegenic, too rich, too comfortable or, gulp, too vanilla. In fact he grew up in a working-class family that lived in a trailer park in southern California. He was a swimmer and diver and water polo player in high school, and a dirt bike racer on weekends.
He waited years for the brass ring that is a ride in Sprint Cup. He grabbed it and hasn’t let go. Maybe that’s why his popularity doesn’t measure up to his success.
“When Tiger Woods was so good, people would come (to golf tournaments) just to see him dominate,” said Ryan. “In racing it’s the exact opposite. I listened to callers tell me they’re not watching that weekend’s race. They figured Johnson would win again so why bother.”
He won six of the 36 races this season. His best was 10 of the 36 in 2007. Perception had become reality.
Friday night in Las Vegas, the best race car driver of our time will claim another polished trophy. He’ll hear loud applause from his peers. And from the rest of the NASCAR fandom?
“I don’t run into a lot of passionate Jimmie Johnson fans,” said Ryan.
That’s a shame.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: