Jimmie Johnson's loved, not loathed

2/19/2011 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Imagine Ken -- Barbie's man -- seated in a jail cell beside his best buddy, trying to figure out which one should ring Barbie to break the news that they'd just done something really stupid. That, generally, is how Jimmie Johnson's peers view him.

Stick with me -- I'll explain.

Johnson's dominance of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series leads many fans to loathe him. Many use the word "hate." They don't hate him. They're just tired of him winning. They're tired of him smiling. They're tired of his fairy tale.

They're tired of him kicking their man's fairy tale.

So they boo. And they cuss. And they use the middle digit to tell him he's No. 1 as he smokes the tires after another win. I have a good friend, an Earnhardt fan from birth, who recently quipped that if Johnson wins another championship he may need some Kevlar ... because my friend might just stab him. He's an alien, my buddy said. It's the only way to stop him.

Johnson's peers want to feel that way, too. Funny thing is, they can't.

"That's the biggest thing that sucks about Jimmie Johnson is you want to hate him, but you just can't," said Clint Bowyer through a hearty laugh. "He's such a great champion for this sport and there's nothing you can say bad about him. He doesn't make mistakes. He doesn't race anybody different than they race him. You just can't find faults with him. You want to hate him. But you just can't. How annoying is that?"

It definitely annoyed Kurt Busch last spring. He openly told us so. Busch had dominated the race at Bristol Motor Speedway before Johnson used an outside pass to steal victory. Busch, visibly pissed, exited his car and point-blank said he can accept getting beaten by "anybody but the 48."

Most dominators are outwardly hated. It's the culture in which we live. How often is dominance truly appreciated in the moment? Rarely.

"Why would you want to hate him?" Dale Earnhardt, Jr. questioned. "Sure he wins a lot, but every sport needs that type of individual that comes along every once in a while and sets new standards for competition going forward. This sport will be able to bank on his involvement for decades, long after me and you are gone."

Added Marcos Ambrose: "It's a great feeling for me to be able to race against him like this. He's going to be remembered in 30 years time as the best ever. Just to see him doing his thing, and experiencing it firsthand from behind the wheel is unique. There are certain eras and certain drivers that stand above everybody else. And Jimmie, over the past five years, has just crushed us. All of us."

True. It would be easy to dislike him. Despite that, you rarely, if ever, hear a disparaging word about Johnson from inside the garage.

"For whatever reason, it's human nature for a lot of people to be jealous, to want to be that guy on top," said Brian Vickers, pausing momentarily during a stroll through the Daytona Fan Zone to sign a dog wearing a T-shirt. "It's the same for the fans. For whatever reason people want to hate the guy they want to be."

Kyle Busch paused in thought for a while. He folded his arms, smiled then noted that Johnson evokes thoughts of dominance, that he's a great overall champion. But that wasn't the interesting thing.

"He's an easy guy to go talk to. He shoots you straight," Kyle said. "I've had other guys I've tried to go talk to and you think they're shooting you straight, and you catch them in a lie instantly because you've already spoken with their teammates or somebody they know, and all the sudden you're like, 'No. Nope. That's not right.' But with Jimmie, you always know he's shooting you straight. He doesn't lie."

So he's honest. How about humility?

"It's not his way to promote himself, but he doesn't have to promote himself. The record book will promote him for the rest of his life," two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart said. "And as a race car driver, that's the ultimate position to be in, when you don't have to say how good you are, you have a record book to do it for you.

"I have plenty of fun stories about Jimmie; I'm just not sure we can talk about them. Everybody sees him as this clean-cut guy -- and he is. But he's a real person, too. When you get away from everything and can do whatever you want to do and have fun, he lets his hair down just like the rest of us. That's one thing we like about him."

But also why they want so badly to dethrone him.

"He's a genuine guy. He's so real and very humble," Stewart continued. "When you win a race, he's the very first guy to send you a text message saying, 'Hey, man, great job, congrats and I'm happy for you.' It's funny, that's one reason you want to beat him so bad.

He is incredible. I see why he's so good now. Jimmie is very respectful. So respectful. He's a guy that's won five championships and is the new King of NASCAR, and yet still treats me like I'm a step above him for some reason.

-- Mark Martin

"You want to beat him worse than you beat anybody else because he's that good. But at the same time, he's a hard guy to dislike. I think we're all good with that. All of us love Jimmie for who he is, for his passion, for who he is at track and away from the track. He's just a good one."

Like many folks, Mark Martin watched from the outside as Johnson climbed to the top of the sport. And, like many folks, he presumed Johnson was a product of his surroundings, that the greatness of the No. 48 was the result of Chad Knaus' genius and Rick Hendrick's wallet.
That is partly true. But in discussing it, Martin stopped, narrowed his lips, and made certain I understood that Johnson shapes what's in that car as much as anyone.

"He is badass. Just ... bad ... ass," Martin said. "He is incredible. I see why he's so good now. Jimmie is very respectful. So respectful. He's a guy that's won five championships and is the new King of NASCAR, and yet still treats me like I'm a step above him for some reason. That's odd. But it's nice. It's nice to be respected. That's the thing about him. He's so respectful of others."

OK. Honest. Humble. Respectful. So it seems he's a good guy. What kind of friend is he?

"As a friend, I know Jimmie on a level most people don't," Vickers said. "That's why I love him, because of who he is. There's two kinds of friends you have in this world: There's the kind, when you mess up, that will come bail you out of jail; and there's the kind that would be sitting next to you saying, 'Damn, we f----- up.' Jimmie's the latter. He'd be sitting next to you saying, 'Uh-oh. Do you want to call Chani or me? How are we going to solve this?'

"When I hear his name I think jackass. Wait, no. Awesome race car driver jackass. Jimmie is just an awesome guy. I'm so happy for him, I can't even describe it. Now, I hope I win the next five [championships], but if I can't, man, I hope he wins six. As a competitor, I want to beat him bad. But at the same time, I respect the crap out of him, man. He's awesome."

But is he too perfect? Possibly. He has reached a very high standard in Ambrose's eyes.

"I want to hate him more than Carl Edwards. But I like them both!" laughed Ambrose. "They're amazing people. Jimmie is just the most incredible guy. He's so down to earth, so normal, very thoughtful. He's badass fast. He's got a smoking-hot wife. He's Ken! He's Ken from Mattel!"

For the rich and famous, one of the greatest compliments that can be paid is that they never changed.

"He's a five-time champ and as grounded and normal as the first time I met him," Junior said. "He never changed, in my opinion. I used to tell him all the time that he should in some way show more of his personality. But I gave up on that.

"I guess in a way it's good for him to keep some things to himself. We all do that as drivers, but none of us are five-time champs with the potential to transcend the sport. But I guess he needs to keep his exposure at a comfortable level to have some kind of normalcy when he's not working.

"I give him credit for being one of the more approachable drivers in the garage for the fans. He's always got a friendly, positive disposition."

Tough to get a higher endorsement than that.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.