Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: NASCAR’s Biggest Problem – Jimmie Johnson

The new car looks and drives like crap. The playoff system is contrived and ridiculous. There isn’t any difference between manufacturers anymore. It’s follow the leader racing every week. Too few teams have a stranglehold on success. The venues are all the same and the classic tracks are disappearing. The drivers are vanilla. The broadcasts are awful.

To read and listen to diatribes from many of us – and yours truly pleads as guilty as anyone – most every disgruntled fan can put a finger on what currently ails NASCAR. Check Jayski every day and you can also usually find someone offering “solutions” to NASCAR’s steadily dropping ratings and attendance numbers. Some suggestions might actually help in practice; some make you wonder where you can get such high-quality ganja.

However, one glaring problem NASCAR has seems to go somewhat unnoticed by the press and blogosphere, even if the problem is often articulated through other means. And there really isn’t much NASCAR can do about it – not that they wouldn’t try.

Jimmie Johnson.

Bruton Smith makes outrageous statements at times and rarely does he leave the press with nothing to quote when he opens his mouth publicly. Still, the Brute was onto something when he suggested that Johnson get out of his car and slap someone, even offering to be the one slapped by him. Which, by the way, is Bruton’s best idea to increase attendance yet.

Smith was not serious, of course, that Johnson should alter his persona and risk sponsor trouble in a reckless and public outburst of emotion. But he was making a point in his inimitable way. For three straight years, the Sprint Cup has been lofted every year by a driver who hasn’t been in a fight in turn 3, doesn’t bow or cuss after a victory, doesn’t have a late father who was a legend in the sport and hasn’t been married to Miss Sprint.

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Holding a Pretty Wheel: Hate the No. 48? It's Totally Undeserved

Few drivers in NASCAR history are as calm and measured when the cameras are on as Johnson is. So Lowe’s, of course, couldn’t be happier with him, and you can’t blame them, especially given the headaches their biggest competitor had with their outspoken driver once. But Jimmie’s demeanor may also be part of NASCAR’s ratings problem.

It isn’t that our champion is a robot – far from it. It takes great strength of character to be so even-keeled, especially when one drives a racecar at 180 mph at Talladega for a living. It’s that Jimmie’s demeanor makes him appear mechanical. Which, apparently, is fine with him. If you have a problem with how Johnson handles himself, he can get on his walkie-talkie and summon crew members to stand next to him holding three Sprint Cups for you. The No. 48 team has won championships by staying focused in the storm that is the Chase.

Remember Talladega 2006? Jimmie went from second place and ready to challenge for a win to finishing 24th and having his championship hopes severely dented by a teammate with just a little too much lead in his foot. Any driver would have been justified in being angry with Brian Vickers, especially watching him celebrate in victory lane. That had to sting. The most Jimmie would say was to lament being wrecked by a teammate. No denigrating Vickers’s intelligence, no questioning the wisdom of restrictor plates, at least not on television.

That is typical Johnson. His most memorable quote is “this is for all the Johnson haters.” Maybe he could ask Bruton how to get a reaction out of fans.

Jimmie could throw a punch at Kyle Busch today and have a million more fans tomorrow. It might also earn him a group of critics, disdainful of his lapses in judgment of the type one never sees from the likes of Mark Martin or Jeff Burton.

But with no disrespect meant to Mark or Jeff, Jimmie is winning titles. He doesn’t have a long career full of near misses to make him a sentimental favorite. Johnson is proof that a driver can race clean, not punch anybody’s lights out and still win championships, when it sometimes seems as though unwillingness to use the bumper to a victory had been part of the problem for Martin. Johnson isn’t an underdog, nor has he ever been since his rookie season. Winning early and often in one’s career has a way of diminishing the hero factor. Ask Jeff Gordon.

And so you hear the complaints from fans about drivers being robotic, sponsor-friendly, too worried about NASCAR’s reaction to haul off and swing at a guy that just wrecked him. Jimmie isn’t always mentioned by name, and others might come to mind, but hell, he’s been the champion for three seasons. Johnson himself once commented that fans complain about drivers being vanilla but then hammer a driver for showing emotion shortly after Carl Edwards went after Matt Kenseth at Martinsville. He expressed concern about what fans really want from drivers, as if a three-time champion should care. (He should, actually, but not that much.)

Another possible reason for the yawns at the mention of the champion’s name is the matter of some doubt that Johnson truly is a multiple championship driver, doubts attributed to both the top-notch equipment he drives and to the quick-thinking genius on his pit box. Johnson’s gang of car builders and crew members often overshadow his own skills, literally making him underrated as a driver, even with three Sprint Cups to his name.

This doesn’t explain Casey Mears’s or Vickers’s lack of success with capable crew chiefs in Hendrick cars. Or Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s, for that matter – who in the racing world predicted correctly that Junior would have one win in his first year at Hendrick?

The accolades for the builders of equipment and crew chief are unquestionably deserved, but to suggest that anyone could have driven the No. 48 car to three straight titles is patently absurd. Johnson held off a very pushy Gordon at Martinsville. Johnson patiently set up Kenseth for a perfect pass at Texas. Johnson kept his car under control and in one piece to win tire-blowing debacles at both Indianapolis and Charlotte, an achievement that names like Gordon and Tony Stewart couldn’t manage. Johnson managed to squeeze out every drop of fuel at Phoenix.

Johnson has won at Daytona, Darlington, Martinsville, Dover, Richmond, Pocono and just about every speedway you could name. He hasn’t won at a road course yet, but he certainly has been in contention to. Mediocre drivers don’t win at nearly every type of track. Some drivers excel at plate tracks. Some guys are hired solely for road courses. Most drivers get their first win on a speedway. The best ones can get it done anywhere.

Finally, the paint scheme on the No. 48 doesn’t help – a dull, unexciting blue with a familiar but unmoving logo from a home improvement store. Only the bright yellow No. 48 on the side livens it up a bit. Compare it to the flamed black No. 24, or the bright yellow No. 18, or the piercing orange No. 20. Dazzling… the No. 48 paint scheme is not.

When you add up the dearth of memorable moments outside of the car, the relative ease in winning championships over the last three years (that’s “relative” as compared to, say, Kurt Busch’s 2004 championship – winning Cup titles is never done with “ease”), the dull blue paint scheme, and the idea that he isn’t any better than anyone else would be in the No. 48 car, and the sum is that Johnson doesn’t help ratings.

There is plenty to dislike about what has happened to NASCAR. There is certainly merit to most of the complaints, most of all about simply the racing itself and where it takes place. I’ve rehashed it plenty in this space and am not going back to that well, at least not today. Give me a few weeks.

But before we attribute the current state of NASCAR entirely to Brian France’s ill-conceived decisions that have rendered NASCAR unrecognizable to those who loved it the most, and the apparent incompetence that brought us some disastrous races, consider where NASCAR would be now should Earnhardt Jr. have won three championships in a row, especially considering that his recent performances haven’t even put him in serious running for one.

Does anyone doubt that the ratings and attendance would tell a different story if, instead of the No. 48 team cruising to three titles, that whatever car Earnhardt Jr. was driving was doing the winning? NASCAR experienced its first ratings increase in several years in 2008 when Junior started driving the No. 88 for Hendrick Motorsports and people knew he would run better than he had been for “TEI.”

After about halfway through the season, when the No. 88 car had managed only one win and a fuel-mileage win at that, ratings trailed off. France wasn’t entirely wrong when he essentially said that as goes Junior, so goes NASCAR. Take it from someone whose website hits triple for Junior articles.

Even without Little E being in the race, a cocky kid named Kyle Busch was certainly doing his part last year for NASCAR’s ratings. Lots of people disliked Kyle and probably still do, but no one disputes that he can drive or that he is a colorful character. People may boo him, but they’re there and they’re watching – as Dale Earnhardt once advised Gordon, “as long as they’re making noise.” Ratings began to sink shortly after the Chase started in 2008 as well, when Kyle Busch fell off the edge of the earth in two races.

I won’t say Kyle Busch or Dale Jr. with his new team were wholly responsible for the ratings increase and decrease in 2008, but they sure as all heck generate a lot of traffic on the Internet, so we know that they get a reaction.

How often do Jimmie Johnson moments generate thousands of Youtube hits?

Kurt’s Shorts – What Will Daytona Bring?

  • Ratings down for the Shootout – can’t imagine why. Perhaps the arbitrary decisions of who to enter in the race based on hair color and whether the car has a prime number?
  • I can’t even begin to predict who will win the 500, even seeing who ran well and who didn’t in the Shootout. I was mildly surprised at Stewart’s performance, though… even on plate tracks I don’t recall Haas ever running that well. Perhaps Stewart may prove me wrong about how well they’ll do this year. Then again, you can’t tell a damn thing from plate races. Tell you what, I’ll predict Gordon takes home his fourth Daytona trophy this year.
  • A start-and-park mission is sad more than anything else, but it is the nature of the beast in NASCAR these days. It may be a good time to reduce the field size to, say, 41 cars. It would solve the pit problem at Dover anyway.
  • I am looking forward to watching Bill Elliott race in this year’s event, especially since he just might be in contention this time around, having topped the charts in both of the first two practices. Maybe Dawsonville Bill has a few moments of awesome still in him.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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