All Jimmie Johnson does is win

BY foxsports • November 23, 2009

Apparently there's no pleasing some people, including all those NASCAR fans who keep scanning the horizon in search of the next big thing. They just missed the biggest thing that's likely to happen in the sport during their lifetime. "I'm accused of not being the most colorful person," Jimmie Johnson chuckled softly during a telephone interview Sunday night. This was a few hours after he'd won an unprecedented fourth straight Sprint Cup Series championship, and if "colorful" means breathing fire before the race, banging into rivals all over the track, then brawling with a few and bragging about it afterward, Johnson seemed resigned to the fact that he is never going to be that guy. All he does is win. "A lot of it boils down to people finding what I say is too 'PC,' or they think I'm always trying to do or say the right thing. I guess in today's world it's a rare trait, but that's how I was raised," he said. "I'm always going to care about the impression I leave." Johnson is at the heart of a dynasty, but you won't hear that from him. In six decades of racing, NASCAR has produced three racers with as many titles - Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt both won seven; teammate Jeff Gordon also owns four - but none of them strung that many together, let alone just eight seasons into their careers. Johnson has also assembled his streak in a decade when the racing circuit standardized the chassis to give everyone essentially the same car and tweaked the points system to make dominance tougher than ever. So think Lance Armstrong in the middle of his Tour de France run, or Tiger Woods completing the Grand Slam in a calendar year - then subtract most of the buzz. If Dale Earnhardt Jr., or Tony Stewart had accomplished what Johnson did, they would be cast in bronze outside NASCAR's headquarters by the middle of next week. That left it to Johnson's competitors to make up the difference. "I really never thought in my career or my lifetime, I'd see somebody win four in a row," said Gordon, who finished third overall in the series championship and is the driver to whom Johnson is often compared. But even Gordon made a point of ducking the 'mentor' label. "I try to be very careful with how I handle that question, because I don't want to take any credit. This guy worked so hard as a kid coming up, and his parents did what you have to do to sacrifice. Jimmie had the talent and he got the right equipment at the right time, just like every other race car driver. "But," Gordon added, "he did more with it than anybody else." NASCAR was once the province of bootleggers and backwoodsmen, its appeal largely limited to the Southeast. Now it's a full-service entertainment juggernaut trailing only the NFL in reach and ambition, but like every other sport, it's fallen on hard times. Some portion of the audience still longs for the gritty, plainspoken predecessors of seasons past. And to those fans, Johnson will always be too smooth. Never mind that men and machines hurtling down a racetrack at speeds approaching 200 mph remains as volatile a mix as ever. Or that Johnson, in the words of crew chief Chad Knaus, "can do things in a race car that I've never seen before." Or that if one of his rivals doesn't break out of the pack, he might be adding titles for another half-dozen years. Consider that the Hendrick Motorsports team Johnson joined as a rookie has emerged as NASCAR's version of the Yankees. It boasts the best technical staff money can buy and a driver's lineup that reads like Murderers' Row - sandwiched between Johnson and Gordon is veteran Mark Martin, second in the overall series championship. No one can say whether all that winning is the reason NASCAR's attendance and TV ratings have tumbled. It could be because Johnson doesn't have a real rival, the way Petty, Earnhardt Sr. and Gordon did, or simply because after years of lagging behind, expansion has caused the supply of the sport to catch up with demand. Johnson is not about to apologize, and he's even less likely to change. He wins by playing it smart, instead of dirty or rough, and if doing things the right way while being tough as a tire iron won't buy him love, he's willing to settle for grudging admiration. "The reception I got climbing out of the car tonight was something else. For a few minutes, it didn't matter which driver they were pulling for. I got a standing ovation from 140,000 people," Johnson marveled, "who respected what I'd done. That gave me goosebumps." --- Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)

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