Commentary

Jimmie Johnson vanilla? Get over it.

Updated: January 10, 2011, 5:51 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

So here we go again, facing a 2011 season with a five-peat champion whom you, the people, largely consider a bland personality.

Yuck, you say.

As the dynasty snowballs, so does your discontent.

So what do you do about Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and their indomitable 48 team?

Well, let's see … there was a T-shirt slogan some years ago that said if you can't change your situation, adjust your attitude.

Let's try that.

We certainly can't change the situation. Even when the 48 team stumbles, its history assures us the slump won't last for long. Changes in the Chase appear imminent, but whatever NASCAR mandates, Knaus and Johnson are sure to figure out how to work the system to their advantage.

For attitude adjustment, let's begin with the grassroots wisdom of the late Cathy Bodine, then the wife of Dale Earnhardt's bitterest rival, Geoff Bodine.

Earnhardt was in his prime, routinely getting booed by the crowds, and in no mood to endear himself to the public via the media.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
Scott Clarke/WireImageDale Earnhardt wasn't the most media-friendly personality on the Cup tour, but his words did resonate.

Cathy Bodine defended him to a gaggle of us reporters once.

"Dale is here to drive that car," she said, gesturing to the 3 car being pushed past us. "Not to talk to you guys."

We didn't like that, spoiled as we were by the talkative likes of Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip. But we thought about it.

By nature, Earnhardt was neither a corporate pitchman nor a media darling at the time. He just drove the car … and groused to me one time that "I wish I was Ralph Earnhardt."

"Why?" I bit on the allusion to his late father, who largely considered the media useless.

"If any reporters came around, he'd just sit up on top of his truck and laugh at 'em -- wouldn't come down."

As time passed, the less we counted on Earnhardt for elaborate quotes -- in that era, Darrell Waltrip supplied those in abundance -- the more we simply watched Earnhardt drive the car.

We realized more and more that he made that black car almost an appendage of himself, made it stalk like a panther, strike like a water moccasin; stuck the nose of it in places where no one else dared, and brought it back intact.

Our attitude adjustment depends on the realization that Johnson does the same things with that blue car.

Earnhardt became a titan via the appreciation of his driving ability. And then the more reclusive he became from the media, the more his few words resonated with the public when he did speak.

Conversely from Earnhardt, though, Johnson has always bent over backward to accommodate the media, and thereby the public we represent. The most successful driver of his era is also one of the most accessible.

His trouble is, he is soft-spoken. He is polite. He doesn't fracture grammar. He just doesn't sound as homespun and hard-bitten as his forerunners in NASCAR.

To hear him, you wouldn't know he was a man of the people every bit as much as Earnhardt was. Even in Southern California, some people have to work hard for a living. Johnson's father was a heavy equipment operator, and his mother drove a school bus to help make ends meet.

Every spare dollar -- and maybe a few that couldn't be spared -- was spent on dirt-bike racing, not aspiring to the big time, but simply so JJ and his two brothers could have fun.

"We never dreamed of anything like this," his dad, Gary Johnson, told me once, gesturing at his surroundings in a Cup garage.

Growing up through racing, JJ once told me, he was so totally dependent on sponsorships and race teams that he felt compelled to avoid embarrassing them in any possible way -- thus the lingering compulsion to seem politically correct.

I think if you really sat back and looked at what this guy can do with a race car, you would be pretty impressed.

-- Chad Knaus on Jimmie Johnson

He now can afford to be himself, but the real JJ is still so deep inside that even his colorful remarks -- e.g., "You don't just say, 'I'm gonna dump his ass,'" or, "I sure as hell know I'm not vanilla" -- are said so softly they don't resound in TV sound bites.

David Pearson -- still, in my book, the best NASCAR driver there's ever been -- "was bashful," he admits. "I hid from the media." So the public knew little about him, and "I probably hurt myself" in that way, he said.

In retrospect, Cale Yarborough is seen as the star of "The Fight" with the Allisons after the 1979 Daytona 500. But day-to-day, Yarborough's persona wasn't flashy, and his words were largely vanilla, with few exceptions -- such as when he dubbed Waltrip "Jaws" after a race at Darlington.

Alan Kulwicki, the engineer whose mind and mouth both worked mathematically, was a barely noticed presence in the garages, a man of "yes" and "no" and "I don't know" until his calculations won him the championship of 1992.

All those drivers became appreciated only after the public stopped listening for wisecracks and started looking for the pure racing -- the driving and the calculation.

Knaus, who already has accomplished more than most crew chiefs ever hope to, has one remaining, burning aspiration: that the public would simply watch his driver drive.

"No disrespect to our elders," Knaus said in the aftermath of the 48 team's fifth straight championship this past November, citing "the Earnhardts, the Waltrips, the Pearsons …" but … "you hear a lot … about the tenacity of those drivers and how aggressive they were and how they could do things with the race car that nobody else could do.

"I think if you really sat back and looked at what this guy can do with a race car, you would be pretty impressed."

Let's do that. Let's pay attention to the essence of JJ's job: driving the car.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.

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