Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: Charming the NASCAR Critics

For most of my years in NASCAR, I have been labeled as somewhat of an apologist. Give me a rules change, a new setup package, or a revision in the points system, and most often I will smile, nod, and say “Well done!” A number of my outspoken critics have accused of me, from time-to-time, of sucking up to the France family under the condition that if “Big Bill”/Bill Jr./Brian ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. There is also the assumption that somebody ain’t gonna score any race or media credentials either.

Oddly enough, during my career, much the opposite has been true; I have written and lectured for years about the inconsistencies, flawed thinking and politicized behavior within America’s second (third? fourth?) most popular sport. The editor who worked on the first book I wrote about NASCAR even had me remove half a chapter that took NASCAR to task for welcoming the Hooters restaurant chain as a team sponsor.

My editor felt I was too critical and in danger of offending the sanctioning body.

Who knew I would wind up one day working with a Sprint Cup team financed by the “Delightfully Tacky, yet Unrefined” company. My duties even went so far as to help with our driver’s appearances at nearby outlets after Friday afternoon qualifying.

I guess criticism doesn’t mean so much when the company in question is footing your race team’s expenses and helping keep the shop open. You simply smile, address any snarky comments that head your way and act grateful for the opportunity you’ve been given. When you consider the alternative, maybe controversy trumps bankruptcy.

The wolf at the door is sometimes the wolf that saves your life.

This is how my critical attitude toward Jimmie Johnson has changed.

I bristled when Johnson came into the Cup Series full time back in 2002. To me, back in those days, he was just another California hotshoe looking to make the big time. He had logged some time in ASA competition and already had an Xfinity Series win.

I remember Jimmie’s first NASCAR touring series victory in July 2001. My dad was visiting and we were all getting ready to go out for supper. The Xfinity race was on television and here was this Johnson guy smiling from the winner’s circle. I looked at my father and said, “Anybody can get lucky once.”

For Jimmie Johnson, Lady Luck showed up about 15 years ago with her suitcase.

I remember the years when a Sprint Cup Series rookie was lucky to win one race in their first full season, let alone two like the late Davey Allison did back in 1987. Not to be outdone, Johnson won three in 2002 with an average finish of 13.5 for the year. Despite his success, Jimmie saw ROTY honors go to Ryan Newman.

While it is unethical for someone who writes about NASCAR to have a favorite driver or team, it is not out-of-line to admire someone who does their job well. I’d file Johnson and the No. 48 bunch under that category. Not only does the team run consistently well and win consistently often, but they tend to do so with a disregard for the NASCAR rulebook.

Call it old-school racing, but I find little fault with someone who reads the rules closely and finds a loophole that enables them to massage the guidelines and take advantage of their discovery. That’s been part of NASCAR since 1949 and the first “Strictly Stock” event at the Charlotte Fairgrounds.

So when I see words like “Johnson”, “Knaus”, “sideskirt” and “Lowe’s Chevrolet” mentioned within the same sentence, I immediately think real racing. It’s a nod to tradition and teams striving for excellence.

Of course, Johnson has been criticized for being too new-school as well. He falls into the categories of “corporate spokesman” and “media-friendly” – terms that reek of Modern Era NASCAR. Johnson is a young family man who spends his limited free time training like an Olympic athlete. He charms reporters and sponsors with a grin and a humble comment, which all makes him too vanilla to be much good for the sport.

Then again, if NASCAR hopes to attract a family demographic, maybe having Jimmie Johnson as its poster boy makes sense. Those much-desired families can grow right alongside Johnson’s accomplishments.

Every now and again there comes a driver who rewrites the record books. Richard Petty did it, Dale Earnhardt did it, Jeff Gordon did it, and now it’s Jimmie Johnson. As Johnson creeps close to Earnhardt’s career win record, he’s doing so by making his mark in NASCAR history by dominating Dover for the 10th time. A record-tying seventh Sprint Cup title also seems to be within Jimmie’s reach.

Some records in NASCAR, however, seem safe, like Petty’s 200 career victories and his string of 10 consecutive wins back in 1967. That mark resembles Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in baseball: one that may never be broken. Might such a tally be redefined during our lives? Jimmie Johnson just might have a reasonable chance to do so. Only time, good health, and consistency can say.

All three of those variables seem to be in Jimmie Johnson’s wheelhouse right now. That’s why this critic is a tad less critical about the driver with each passing week and each new victory.

Maybe I am an apologist. When I consider what Jimmie Johnson has accomplished over the past 15 years, I say, “Well done!”

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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