NASCAR's new champion lags in fan popularity
November 25, 2006 8:37pm CST
There's an Internet video of a family in its kitchen watching October's last-lap wreck at Talladega. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson crash on the final lap, the family flies into an expletive-laden rage against Johnson. Widely viewed throughout NASCAR, it took Earnhardt and Denny Hamlin to make Johnson aware of the clip. ``That was one of the funniest videos I've ever seen,'' Hamlin told him, choking back laughter. ``Even the toddler was ripping you.'' Johnson is NASCAR's nicest guy and its newest champion, but he's far from a fan favorite. With 23 career victories and his first Nextel Cup championship, Johnson's still working on winning over fans: He ranked a distant 10th last season in final voting for NASCAR's most popular driver. Routinely booed during pre-race introductions, he's had more than one Victory Lane celebration spoiled by debris raining down from the grandstands. Although that didn't happen Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he hardly was embraced. His haters didn't even bother sticking around, making the final trophy presentation somewhat muted. ``He is a genuine person, the kind that fans should embrace,'' said Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Hampton, who attended eight races this season, including Sunday's finale, as Johnson's guest. ``Instead, he's kind of the poster guy -- when things look too good, you say 'Man, I've got to break this down and figure out what's wrong with him.' But the honest answer is there's nothing. He treats the valet the exact same way he would treat the President of the United States. You don't get that a lot in professional athletes, but with Jimmie, what you see is what you get.'' It's hard to figure out exactly where Johnson went wrong. Since breaking onto the Cup scene in late 2001, he has been a model of consistency on and off the track. He works hard, wins races and competes for championships. He's never punched a photographer or cursed on national TV. He's never been in trouble with the law and hasn't disrespected a NASCAR official. He shows up where he's supposed to, honors his commitments and is almost always on time. Maybe that's the problem. ``Maybe he's too nice, and he wins too much,'' teammate Jeff Gordon said. ``It seems the more Jimmie wins, the more he gets booed.'' It also might be guilt by association. Gordon draws his share of boos, and he and Johnson have been closely aligned since Gordon helped him get his big break with Hendrick Motorsports in 2001. The story is well-known: Johnson was a no-name Busch Series driver when he approached Gordon at the track one day and asked for advice. Gordon gave him his phone number and told him to call him the following week, striking up a friendship that led Gordon to personally pitch Johnson to the CEO of Lowe's Home Improvement for the car the company planned to sponsor. Success came as soon as Johnson got behind the wheel of his new No. 48 Chevrolet. He drove to three victories as a rookie and a fifth-place finish in the standings. But many fans instantly hated him, assuming Johnson's friendship with Gordon got him breaks he had not earned. ``I think a lot of people think Hendrick Motorsports ... and everything is just handed to you on a golden platter,'' Gordon said. ``They think that his success is because he's got the best car, the best this, the best that. Not a lot of people appreciate Jimmie's talent.'' Or the road he took to get to the top. A laid-back California kid, there's a perception that Johnson doesn't fit the NASCAR mold. But behind his cool demeanor hides a guy who fought and worked for everything he has. The misconception is Johnson is a spoiled rich kid with a Daddy who leveraged everything to help him make it big. The reality is Gary Johnson was a heavy equipment operator, and his wife, Cathy, drove a school bus to help make ends meet. On weekends, the Johnsons loaded their three boys into an old van and took them camping in the desert, where Jimmie, Jarit and Jessie rode dirt bikes long into the night as their parents partied with friends around the fire. The boys loved it, and Jimmie was a natural. So much so that he dreamed of career as a racer, motocross or supercross, but something on two wheels. ``I look back and I remember as a kid, I was racing dirt bikes. And I wanted to be like Rick Johnson and Bob Hannah was big at the time, and Jeff Ward and those guys, and that was my goal -- to race motorcycles,'' Johnson said Sunday. ``I did that for a while, through all the broken bones, got off the bikes and found my way into the off-road buggies.'' That hit a speedbump during the 1994 Baja 1000 when Johnson crashed and was stranded for almost 40 hours on a rock deep in Baja California. While sitting on the rock, Johnson decided to leave off-road racing and pursue a career racing on pavement in cars. He thought he'd go the open-wheel way and become the next Rick Mears, but he attracted attention at Chevrolet and was steered to stock cars, which was rapidly gaining in popularity. He was all for the change but had no idea how long it would take him to succeed. ``I still didn't realize I had eight years ahead of me still, maybe nine years, before I found my way to where we are today,'' he said. ``It's just been a long road. I'm a realist and I have high hopes, but I just didn't really think that I could get this far from where I came from. ``It's just such a long, long road, and it's been a lot of people that believed in me.''