President Obama’s statement last week declaring Jimmie Johnson to be “the Michael Jordan of NASCAR” got me to wondering: are there no other stock car drivers who could be associated with professional athletes? Comparing the six-time Sprint Cup champion to perhaps the most accomplished and recognized personality in recent NBA history seems a tad presumptuous, but maybe such a leap allows for similar stretches of the imagination.
Johnson’s visit to the White House last week was nothing new – he makes the trip each time he wins another championship – nor is he the first Johnson from NASCAR to stroll through the rose garden; former moonshiner-turned-Hall of Famer Junior Johnson made the trip back when Jimmy Carter was president, and again when Ronald Reagan pardoned him for past misdeeds.
What made Jimmie’s appearance this year so interesting to me was the way in which our Commander-In-Chief used such a striking analogy when putting Johnson’s success into context. Michael Jordan (minus the gambling rumors and his fumbled foray into minor-league baseball) seems to be the obvious comparison when considering all that Jimmie and the well-financed folks at Hendrick Motorsports have done since 2002.
Allow me to begin by mashing some sour grapes: Johnson’s success in NASCAR has certainly been helped by the dedicated sponsorship he’s enjoyed from Lowe’s Home Improvement Stores since the beginning of his Sprint Cup career. Back in 1996, when Lowe’s was testing the NASCAR waters, the North Wilkesboro-based company backed the independent effort of Brett Bodine.
Bodine had purchased Junior Johnson’s race team following the 1995 season in an attempt to master the often-elusive and always-challenging race driver/car owner combination, and the fine folks at Lowe’s went along for what became a fairly bumpy ride. Long story very short: the trials and tribulations of Brett Bodine’s No. 11 Lowe’s Ford prompted the company to re-think its relationship with NASCAR.
And, like most failed relationships, Lowe’s rebounded quickly by putting its name on Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolets. The rest, as they say, is history.
So now Jimmie Johnson and Rick Hendrick are posing for photographs once again with whoever’s currently residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Hooray for them, but might the “NASCAR = other sports” analogy be pushed a bit farther? Perhaps we are ignoring other, somewhat relevant comparisons that reflect the relationship between NASCAR and more mainstream sports.
Take Denny Hamlin and his sponsorship from FedEx. Might he not be called the “Karl Malone of NASCAR” given the NBA star’s nickname (“The Mailman”) and overtones with Hamlin’s package-toting corporate sugar daddy? If it absolutely, positively has to be there in tomorrow’s sports section, could not that relationship make for relevant public recognition? Would conventional sports fans get the connection?
To make the behavior of drivers like Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and even Brad Keselowski more relevant to mainstream audiences, all the media needs to do is hitch one of these hotshoes to the passive-aggressive wagon of any hot-headed NBA player. Suddenly outbursts before the media or along pit road become more easily understood.
Is Tony Stewart the “Charles Barkley of NASCAR”? It’s been a while since Smoke kicked a photographer’s camera under a car, but then it’s been a while since “Sir Charles” smashed a plate-glass window at a restaurant. Is everything not relative?
And what about Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Surely NASCAR’s eleven-time Most Popular Driver has an NBA counterpart with whom fans can identify. How about someone like newly-free-agented LeBron James, who made the transition from high school phenomenon to professional superstar look shockingly simple? Certainly the same could be said for Kobe Bryant, but then the Lakers standout was implicated in that hotel sexual assault business a few years ago; that kind of accusation can tarnish an athlete’s reputation quickly, no matter how talented they are.
For Junior, his tragically-rapid ascension to the Earnhardt throne came with both great promise and potential. His name alone brought an immediate association with NASCAR success, but his on-track accomplishments over the past few years have been more famine than feast. So far 2014 has been a season of success, with Dale Jr. being assured a place in the Chase, but it’s also put the driver squarely within the media spotlight yet again; it’s not a matter of “can he make?” the postseason, but more a matter of “can he win?” the postseason and earn his first Sprint Cup championship.
Such questions and concerns have dogged LeBron James throughout his career, too. The demands of fans and musings by the media have been rough on both of these athletes, so maybe linking the two of them makes logical sense.
If Dale Jr. goes to the White House in 2015, will President Obama refer to him as “the LeBron James of NASCAR”? One can only speculate about such things, but it seems possible.
Hence my wondering about Jimmie Johnson being called “the Michael Jordan of NASCAR” by the President last week. As long as “Six-Pack” keeps his falling off golf carts to a minimum – like Michael Jordan did with his professional baseball career – perhaps the moniker will remain rightfully earned.
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