While it may not rank with the Bermuda Triangle or Stonehenge as one of the world’s great unexplained mysteries, Jimmie Johnson’s underwhelming fan support is just a bit odd. Sports fans love dominance – Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, the New York Yankees – and by any measure, Johnson has made NASCAR his bitch since arriving full-time in 2002.
The 33-year-old has won 40 of his 255 career starts, meaning he’s won almost 16 percent of his races, better than any other active driver, eighth-best all-time, and one spot ahead of everyone’s other favorite whipping boy, Jeff Gordon; in the four seasons he hasn’t won the overall championship, Johnson finished second twice and fifth twice. And then, of course, there are those three straight championships. And had it not been for Kurt Busch’s stunning bit of good luck at Homestead in 2004, we’d be discussing a fourth title in five years and debating Johnson’s status relative to Gordon among the sport’s all-timers.
There’s certainly something to be said for the fact that the guy just makes everything look so damn easy – he has been perfectly summarized as NASCAR’s “Ken Doll” by one long-time and incredibly astute writer – but that’s obviously a simplification. There’s even something to be said for the fact that he stepped in clover when he signed to drive for Hendrick. There’s also his milque-toast personality, a perception he seems to nurture with every public, gee-whiz, aw-shucks pronouncement.
Succeeding in NASCAR isn’t easy and it’s hardly Johnson’s fault that Gordon saw his talent and got him to Hendrick. But if he can be blamed for anything, Johnson can perhaps be blamed for his unwillingness or his inability to be human in front of the public and the media – there’s never a hair out of place nor even the slightest misstep. He might want to consider this column by Jade Gurss, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s friend and former PR rep, who knows a thing or two about what it takes to be popular in NASCAR.
Somehow, not winning hasn’t really hurt Junior’s Q-rating. Maybe being a bit more unguarded could help Johnson’s.