Surrounded by throngs of reporters and television cameras, Wednesday, Jimmie Johnson spoke to the media gathered inside the Daytona 500 Club. He begins his final full-time NASCAR Cup Series season Sunday.
Like Kyle Busch, Johnson is among NASCAR’s god-tier of drivers. Yet he’s never garnered the respect he deserves, according to teammate, Chase Elliott.
“I think he’s the best to have come along,” he said. “I think what he’s done, the amount of time he did it in, the way he did it, I just don’t see how that’s matched in my personal opinion.”
The White Zone: Jimmie Johnson deserves more respect than he’s received
Often what’s “matched” is the derision Johnson’s received for years.
It stems from multiple factors: Fan fatigue from his five straight championships, the system in place to determine the champion (the playoffs), the multiple times his longtime crew chief, Chad Knaus, was suspended for rules violations and his stoic personality.
I get fatigue. I was one of those fans, too; though it was more jealousy of his success, being a Jeff Gordon fan at the time. I get the championship format argument. I’m not a fan of it, either. I get the cheating accusations.
I don’t, however, get the personality argument.
Yes, Johnson’s not flamboyant, like Lewis Hamilton, or vocal, like Busch and Brad Keselowski. He’s the guy who’ll say what pleases his sponsors and not cause them trouble. He’s a model corporate spokesperson.
Unlike Matt Kenseth, his more snarky demeanor stays behind closed doors.
True, the average NASCAR fan can’t relate to a guy like that, but that’s certainly no reason to discount his success.
The numbers speak for themselves: 83 career wins (sixth on NASCAR’s all-time wins list) and seven championships (tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most all time). His 11 wins at Dover International Speedway makes him one of five drivers to win double-digit races at a single track.
Furthermore, he’s earned the respect of his fellow competitors for the way he races.
“…we’ve never laid a door or a fender or anything on one another,” Busch said. “We’ve always raced each other really, really clean, have had great respect for one another. We’ve raced each other for wins cleanly, we’ve raced each other for championships cleanly. He’s one of the best I’ve ever been around.”
He added that the only other drivers he can say that about are Kenseth and Greg Biffle.
Beyond statistics, he’s worked behind the scenes to help drivers coming up through the ranks.
Austin Dillon reached out to him during his first season in the XFINITY Series in 2012.
“I was running like second or third while running for that championship and just wanted his advice as a Chevy driver and reached out,” Dillon said. “And he came back with everything he could give me as far as wisdom in racing for a championship. How he would race for a championship.”
The two texted each other after every race and Johnson came up to him after practice sessions. They continued to do so into his championship season in 2013. This time, however, Johnson was asking him how the track ran.
“Hearing that from a guy that won five championships at that time, I was just kind of mind blown that he was able to talk to someone that is in a lesser series and be able to learn from them,” he said. “He was going to take anything he could take and apply it to his game. That is something that I will always remember from Jimmie, is the relentless effort and not afraid to get better in any way.”
And there are many other drivers with stories like this.
Finally, while this might be a little self-serving, Johnson always tried to give insightful answers to anything I asked him, no matter how stupid the question was.
After he won at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2016, I asked him how tough it was to run 210 laps caution-free with an ill-handling race car, even for someone who’s in peak physical shape.
“It’s so much fun, you don’t even think about it,” he said. “This racetrack is so fun to drive, you’ve got to be so disciplined with your inputs. Too much brake creates a variety of problems. Letting off the gas too hard does the same thing. If you miss the painted line by a couple inches, the car drives terrible and is bouncing all over the place, and then that’s just getting into the turn. Then you’ve got to deal with the center of the corner and the bumps and getting off the turn. Those laps did go by pretty quick.
“I did find that I was really thirsty, and finally maybe the second or third green-flag stop, I grabbed my drink bottle and got a drink of Gatorade. But outside of that, it was a nice cool day so I don’t think it was too hard physically. I make sure that I cover that base and make sure my conditioning is where it needs to be, but this track is so fun to drive, those laps went by pretty fast.”
I could also talk about his physical regiment and how he’s influenced other drivers to take their physical health more seriously, but Jeff Gluck at The Athletic did that more justice than I could’ve.
Like his mentor, Gordon, Jimmie Johnson will probably get the appreciation when he’s inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Whether or not he does before he steps out of the car for possibly the final time this season, only time will tell.
That’s my view, for what it’s worth.