There was a time when Jimmie Johnson was completely baffled by the boos that rain down on him at the racetrack every week.
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But after winning a record five straight NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, he has gotten used to it and completely understands.
“Everybody is tired of us winning. That’s just the way it is,” he said.
Johnson even has grown to accept it. No, check that, he not only accepts it, he’s starting to embrace it.
“I remember when [Dale] Earnhardt was hated and [Jeff] Gordon was hated. I assume at some point people were tired of [Richard] Petty winning races,” he said. “I wasn’t around to witness that, but I’m sure there were plenty of boos and plenty of articles about it being bad for the sport, all this stuff I’m going through.”
Johnson said this during media day at Hendrick Motorsports. And then he paused – smiling, beaming with pride that he is mentioned in the same breath as such elite company.
“The reason I’m smiling is because I’m in the situation to be that guy,” he said. “I experienced it with Earnhardt and watched it with Gordon firsthand, and I’m excited to be in this position. It’s great. I certainly never thought I’d be in this position, so I’ll take the good with the bad.”
Yes, Johnson is hated by many fans. His five straight championships have been unpopular and, in some ways, not good for the sport. But if that’s the tradeoff for making history and cementing himself as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – in NASCAR history, he’ll take it.
As Johnson pointed out, 10 years from now, fans won’t remember how unpopular he was. Instead, they’ll be marveling about his greatness.
“Five or 10 years from now, this (hatred) won’t even exist and it’ll be looked at as something different,” he said.
Johnson’s title run already is one of the most remarkable feats in NASCAR history. In NASCAR’s most competitive era, he surpassed Cale Yarborough’s three straight championships and eclipsed Gordon’s four overall. Now he’s in position to reach Earnhardt-Petty territory.
Johnson will be the overwhelming favorite to win a sixth straight title this season. In fact, it will be a surprise if he doesn’t. The only question is when, not if, he will tie the seven titles won by Petty and Earnhardt.
What has made Johnson a five-time champion and perhaps the greatest champion ever is his intense desire and commitment to remain the best.
Many expected a letdown last year after he broke Yarborough’s record in 2009. Instead, he turned in perhaps his greatest performance yet, rallying to beat Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick in one of the closest points battles ever.
Johnson raced with the same fire and sense of desperation late last year as when he won his first title in 2006. He’s carrying the same attitude into 2011.
“I can’t think about what we’ve done in the past, especially if I want to win another championship,” he said. “What we have done in the past does not give us any benefits for the future. We have to go out there and earn every point.”
He is determined to do so. You can hear it in his voice and see it in the moves he and crew chief Chad Knaus made during the offseason.
After benching the team’s pit crew late last season and replacing it with Gordon’s, Knaus has overhauled the whole crew for this year. He held intense tryouts at the Hendrick Motorsports shop. As many as five of the six over-the-wall crewmen could be new.
“At the end of the year, we were in a position we didn’t want to be in and we made a move that was not typical for the 48 team nor the Hendrick teams, swapping the crews around,” Johnson said. “We did it, and it worked, but we knew before that that we needed to make some changes during the offseason.
“Every offseason, we go through and try to make sure we have the best people on the roster.”
Though Johnson dominated the 2008 and ’09 seasons to win his third and fourth titles, last year was a bit of a struggle and required a remarkable comeback at the end of the season. In a season in which he and his team were thought to be vulnerable, Johnson became the first driver to rally with two races remaining to win the title, taking it by 39 points over Hamlin.
Though he takes more pride in the dominant seasons, he said last year might have been his most significant championship run.
“As the season wore down, I recognized that I was very fortunate to be in the tight points battle,” he said. “I was very excited to come out on top and win it coming from behind like we did. The impact that it’s had, it’s been big.
“I do have a great sense of pride in the fact that we came (from) behind and no one had ever done that before.”
The fact he and Knaus and team owner Rick Hendrick rallied the troops and pulled it off again makes Johnson and the No. 48 team seem almost invincible.
“Chad and I, faced with the reality that we didn’t have the speed that we wanted and the fact that we didn’t kill each other and were still in the game and giving ourselves a chance to win the championship, I think that speaks volumes about our maturity level and the way we have grown together,” Johnson said.
“I have learned a lot of little things along the way, a lot of things that reminded us what we are made of.”
Now, the quest for a sixth title begins, and then the record-tying seventh and then so on.
Johnson is reveling in the magnitude of it all, even if he does have to be the sport’s bad guy. And if his streak of dominance is indeed over, well, he’s OK with that, too.
“If it all ended today, there is no way I would be disappointed. It’s been a one hell of a ride,” he said.