Commentary

Jimmie Johnson lost amid Vegas glitz

Updated: December 1, 2010, 2:54 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- The "ding-ding-ding" reverberated through the Wynn hotel late Tuesday afternoon as get-rich-quick tourists played the slots just outside the hotel's sportsbook. Others passed by on the way to their rooms or an overpriced dinner, where one glass of wine cost more than a complete meal at a fast-food restaurant back home.

In the midst of all this, Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus talked NASCAR on Eli Gold's weekly radio show.

Yet only a handful of people were paying attention.

They just don't get it.

If this were Tom Brady after winning another Super Bowl or LeBron James after winning his first NBA championship, the room would be packed. People would be clamoring for autographs to the point that hotel security would have to be beefed up.

Johnson and Knaus didn't need security here. They needed fans to understand the significance of winning five straight Sprint Cup titles.

Thousands of people were within yards of greatness and didn't know it.

It's a shame, and I don't say this because Johnson complimented me on my black velvet jacket that was almost identical to his.

[+] EnlargeJohnson/Knaus
Rusty Jarrett/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson, left, and Chad Knaus are celebrating their fifth straight Sprint Cup championship this week in Las Vegas.

Fortunately, at least one local fan got it. Jill Morrissey became a follower of Johnson before he was famous, before anyone knew there was potential for greatness. She was watching a then-Busch Series race in 2000 when this relatively unknown driver crashed nose-first into the wall at Watkins Glen.

She remembers watching the driver get out of his car unscathed from a horrific moment that looked worse than Elliott Sadler's crash at Pocono this past season, and salute the crowd.

She was hooked.

"From that point on I was, 'That's the guy,'" Morrissey said.

If more people could see Johnson away from the car, where he and Knaus are as cold and calculating as any combination in the history of sports, they might become fans, too.

Tony Stewart gets it. He says Johnson is the greatest driver ever in NASCAR. When Johnson sent a shot over to Stewart's table during the radio show, the two-time champion didn't hesitate to raise his glass.

"I wouldn't want to insult the champion," Stewart said.

It's an insult that more people weren't there to salute Johnson.

"People here have no idea what they're missing," Morrissey said. "I was here last year, and [it was] the same thing. People were just walking by without stopping. No idea."

Morrissey is more personally tied to the No. 48 team than most. After being in two airplane accidents that resulted in a fractured back, jaw and skull, among other injuries, she started receiving e-mails from one of the team engineers and his wife, who knew of her through work she'd done with NASCAR charity organizations.

"They just kept me chipper throughout the whole thing," Morrissey said. "That's another side of Johnson and the people around him that people don't get to see. They have no idea."

They didn't in New York City, either, where the banquet was until last year. After Johnson won his third straight title in 2008, I stopped 50 strangers on the street and asked whether they knew who won the NASCAR championship. Only nine did. The others had to be told, and even then, many thought it was the NFL coach turned Fox analyst who spells his first name with a "Y" on the end.

There was no such survey in Las Vegas, unless you count my cab driver, who, after being educated on Johnson, asked whether there was any skill to driving a stock car and whether winning five championships in a row is a good accomplishment.

That there are too many people like the cab driver and not enough like Morrissey in Vegas is reason enough to say the season-ending banquet needs to be moved to a place where Johnson and the sport truly are appreciated, where there are more than a dozen fans wanting autographs or waiting to hear what comes out of the champion's mouth.

It's time to say the banquet belongs in Charlotte, N.C.

Most champions are greeted by their hometown fans with a ticker-tape parade that befits the accomplishment. NASCAR's home is Charlotte, where a majority of the teams are based.

Let the hometown fans share in this moment. Give the struggling Hall of Fame a week's worth of business to crown the champion properly and give team owners who spend thousands to fly, house and feed personnel in Vegas a break in the wallet.

Not a bunch of people who are hoping to hit blackjack or triple 7s.

"I agree," Morrissey said. "That's where it needs to be."

That's not to say Vegas isn't a fun place to hold a banquet, although the weather is so unusually cold this week that it feels more like New York. During a Tuesday afternoon jog, I saw an Elvis impersonator, a woman with a boa constrictor around her neck, a shuttle bus driver who goes by the name of Santa and a magician dressed in a black tuxedo.

Oh, and I saw Johnson and Knaus posing in front of the famous Bellagio fountain, which threatens to become a famous ice sculpture if it doesn't warm up a bit.

There wasn't a big crowd around them there, either.

Johnson is used to this, but he shouldn't have to be. He needs die-hard fans who were calling into Gold's radio show clamoring to know more about the pit crew change with teammate Jeff Gordon late in the Chase and what Johnson and Knaus think of having Dale Earnhardt Jr. sharing a shop next season instead of Gordon.

Knaus summed it up best, saying, "It's going to be interesting."

Perhaps some of Johnson's brilliance will rub off on NASCAR's most popular driver and Earnhardt's popularity will rub off on Johnson.

But Johnson isn't about being popular. He's about winning championships and now being a father. He's about having fun, too, as was evident with the exchange of shots he initiated during the radio show.

Johnson doesn't know how long this run will last. Nobody does. But it should be appreciated more now, not in 20 years, when the next star is trying to duplicate it.

As Stewart said as he raised his shot glass high, don't insult the champion.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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