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Johnson's taking of NASCAR points lead revs up resentment again

Jimmie Johnson holds a seven-point lead over Brad Keselowski in the Cup standings. Many fans grumble that while the El Cajon native deserves respect as a great driver, he wins so often as to dull NASCAR overall.

November 11, 2012|By Jim Peltz, Los Angeles Times
  • Jimmie Johnson wins so often that it dulls NASCAR for many fans.
Jimmie Johnson wins so often that it dulls NASCAR for many fans. (Jonathan Ferrey / Getty…)

AVONDALE, Ariz. — The backlash among NASCAR's faithful resurfaced almost instantly.

No sooner had Jimmie Johnson won the race at Martinsville, Va., two weeks ago, and taken the points lead in the Sprint Cup Series than the outcry began that this was, somehow, bad news.

Johnson is trying to win his sixth Cup championship — an achievement only two other drivers have accomplished — in the last seven years.

And that had a good many NASCAR watchers grumbling in the blogosphere, social media circles and on Internet message boards. Their complaint: While Johnson deserves respect as a great driver, he wins so often as to dull NASCAR overall.

Johnson holds a seven-point lead over Brad Keselowski in the Cup standings with two races left: the AdvoCare 500 on Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway and the season finale a week later at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway.

Johnson's lead is the equivalent of only seven positions on the racetrack, so a mechanical problem on his No. 48 Chevrolet or a wreck could quickly wipe out his advantage.

But Johnson also runs well at Phoenix, where he's the only four-time winner, so he's poised to at least protect his lead over Keselowski heading into the final race.

That has Johnson's fans cheering and his naysayers bracing. "Sure he's the greatest or whatever," one reader wrote on a message board, "but the second he takes the lead, it's off to the NFL I go."

Johnson has heard all of this before; it was prevalent when the 37-year-old El Cajon native reeled off a record streak of five Cup championships from 2006 through 2010.

Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team faltered last year, when Tony Stewart captured the Sprint Cup. But that interruption did little to lessen the backlash that occurred when Johnson took the lead in NASCAR's Chase for the Cup title playoff again this year.

Johnson is pursuing the record of seven championships, held by "The King," Richard Petty, and the late Dale Earnhardt, and he said Friday, "I really don't care" about the reaction.

"I wasn't around to see the Petty era, but … I can only assume that a lot of people were tired of seeing the King win," Johnson said. "I know that a lot of people were tired of seeing Earnhardt win.

"I lived it firsthand in watching Jeff Gordon go through that very same thing after his fourth championship" in 2001, he said. "I'm not doing anything different than Gordon, Petty, Earnhardt. In fact, I'm awfully damn proud to be in that lump of guys that had to go from cheers to boos" because they won so much.

Keselowski, 28, alluded to the resentment toward Johnson. "In general, the sport has that undertone of such to where everybody is ready to see something different. Obviously, I have the opportunity to provide that."

But it won't be easy. "When somebody has won five straight championships like the No. 48 [team] has, that is no fluke," Gordon said. "They just know how to grind and battle and win at the right time."

As he's proved time and again, Johnson — who grew up racing off-road vehicles — is a gifted, ultra-competitive driver who, even when he's leading the Cup standings, gets behind the wheel with the attitude that he's behind, which gives him extra motivation.

Johnson also has the benefit of fast cars from Hendrick, one of NASCAR's most successful teams. And a good deal of Johnson's success is due to crew chief Chad Knaus, who has guided Johnson since Johnson's rookie year in 2002.

"Jimmie relies a lot on Chad, and I don't think Jimmie can really imagine life much without Chad," said Rusty Wallace, a former Cup champion and now the NASCAR analyst at ESPN.

Said Wallace, who once drove the No. 2 car now driven by Keselowski: "It's my opinion they wouldn't be as successful" apart, largely because they communicate so well about what adjustments their car needs.

Knaus is among the best NASCAR crew chiefs in the business, a brainy, meticulous manager whose relationship with Johnson often is compared to the one between New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, who have won three Super Bowls together.

Knaus, 41, also pushes the boundaries of NASCAR's rule book to give his driver an advantage. NASCAR has penalized Knaus (pronounced ke-nouse) more than once for cheating, such as in 2006, when Johnson's car was found to have a doctored rear window after Daytona 500 qualifying.

But Knaus' command of Johnson's team during this year's Chase again played a key role in Johnson's charge at another championship.

During the race at Kansas Speedway three weeks ago, Johnson slammed into the wall, badly tearing up the rear of his car and jeopardizing his Chase hopes.

But an undaunted Knaus repeatedly had Johnson pit for repairs, then told him over the radio that "there's nothing wrong" with the car. Johnson went on to finish ninth and remained second in the standings behind Keselowski.

"It was a season-changing, championship-winning" recovery, wrote Carol Einarsson, editor of Race Journal Online. The next week, at Martinsville, Johnson grabbed the points lead.

Keselowski still has a say in who wins this year's title, of course. But Johnson said that regardless of whether it upsets his critics, he wants a sixth Cup, then a seventh and an eighth.

"There are some that just don't like us," Johnson said. "That's fine, that's cool. I want to be considered the best driver ever to sit in a stock car. The undisputed way to pull that off is to win eight championships."

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