ON NASCAR: Dogged By Critics, Johnson Isn’t Rolling Over

By Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Do you ever suspect that your dog might be walking you, rather than the other way around? Jimmie Johnson detractors may be feeling a little bit like that right about now.

When Johnson fell to 10th place in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup driver standings after the race at New Hampshire on September 25, you would have thought it was the final event rather than just the second race in the Chase. Fans of other drivers engaged in some jubilant fist pumping while the furrowed brows and somber tones of analysts and motorsports media members proved this was indeed a most serious situation. 

Some very well-publicized radio communication between Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus at New Hampshire, during which Jimmie told Chad his “cheerleading” skills left something to be desired and asked him to please just be quiet, seemed indicative of friction between the two. Could it be possible that we were finally seeing a chink in the armor? 

So-called experts were saying that this is not the team that has won the last five championships, and that perhaps the strain of continually facing – and meeting, and then surpassing -- high expectations is wearing on them. Many considered “Five-time’s” hopes for a sixth consecutive series title not only dead, but already buried with grass growing over them. 

Well, here’s a phrase you almost never hear in NASCAR – not so fast. Have the past five years taught us nothing? You might think you’re walking that dog until you suddenly look up and find that he has actually led you to the exact place he wants to be. 

Johnson has certainly led us into some unfamiliar territory this season. Headed into the weekend at Kansas Speedway October 7-9, one of the most successful and dominant competitors in NASCAR history had only one win to his credit on the season. Known for the being affable and unflappable, he has also been engaged in one of the most unusual rivalries of the season, with Kurt Busch.

During the race weekend at Dover, when asked if the radio chatter meant trouble was brewing between Knaus and him, Johnson shrugged it off. 

“If we could put a mic on the sidelines of a pro football game, I’m sure we’d hear a lot worse than some cheerleading comments. There’s a lot being made of very little there. I’m sure there are a lot more colorful drivers and situations that exist out on the track that are far more entertaining than mine,” he said. “When you’re together for as many years as Chad and I have been together, you gotta have thick skin. This is a great race team. It’s the same team that has won five championships in the past. I look forward to what this Lowe’s team is going to do in the future.”

America lost one of its greatest minds on October 5 with the passing of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. We thought the Macintosh computer was cool way back when, but Jobs wasn’t satisfied with just one cool accomplishment. He continued to innovatively outdo himself and everyone else, eventually adding the PowerBook, iPod, iPhone and iPad to round out his own Top 5. He took seemingly impossible dreams, glammed them up with snazzy touch screens, tossed in some 4G and Wi-Fi capability, and placed them in our hands. 

Steve Jobs changed the face of what we formerly considered technologically possible. 

Jimmie Johnson is a lot like that. Winning one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship is one of the most difficult feats in professional sports. Only eight drivers in history have won three or more, and for decades, only one driver was able to win three in a row, a feat which Johnson matched in 2008. Four in a row, of course, was out of the question, until Johnson made it happen in 2009. Five consecutive titles simply didn’t bear discussion, until he had us all talking about it in 2010.

Jimmie Johnson has changed the face of what we formerly considered possible in NASCAR. For the past five years, he has been the lead dog, and as we all know, that’s the pooch you must pass if you want to change the view. He may be running mid-pack at the moment, but history – which as we know is prone to repeating itself – must surely have taught us that to prematurely rule out a sixth title is foolhardy. 

Maybe the old saying that dogs laugh with their tails (or in this case, their tailpipes) really is true after all …

Cathy Elliott, the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway, is a syndicated columnist for NASCAR and author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” (for David M. Kinchen's review on this site:http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/100423-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html). Contact Cathy atcathyelliott@hotmail.com.

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