Thursday, November 8, 2012

Confessions of a former Jimmie Johnson hater

I keep trying to find reasons to not like Jimmie Johnson, but the well is running dry and, really, I'm ready to give up.
Sure, you could say, the simple fact that he drives on the best financed-team and has won five of the last six NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, with a sixth crown well within reach this season, is enough of a reason to not like him. You could say he gets all the breaks and has the best equipment and sure, he makes a ton of money. But, can you really not like somebody just because of that? Think for a second who your favorite professional athlete is, and how much money they make, and really is there a big difference?
Maybe it's the fact that Johnson's life seems perfect, with his wife and young daughter, and he's on the top of his sport. But, even at that, it's still difficult to not like a guy for the simple reason that he is successful. If Johnson came across with an attitude that he's better than anyone else and he knows it and he could care less about the rest of the world, then OK, maybe that could be the root of having some kind of dislike for him. But he's just not like that.
Maybe if he was not really in the greatest physical condition, and fed the stereotype that race car drivers are not  athletes, and didn't care about how he represented the sport, then, OK, maybe that would work, too. But after the July Daytona race, Johnson, along with teammate Kasey Kahne, went and competed in a triathlon in South Carolina. So, he's an athlete, no doubt.
Or maybe if he consistently won races by purposely knocking other cars out of the way in order to win, then, yes, it would be easy to not like seeing that No. 48 at the head of the pack. But he doesn't do that.
So the problem with trying to dislike him is, well, there's just not much to dislike.
Can we really blame a guy who goes out and does his job well? Sure, his crew chief, Chad Knaus can come off as a bit of a know-it-all at times, but given his record, a little extra confidence can be understood. Last year on the radio one time Johnson basically told Knaus to shut up and just let him drive. So, even Johnson can be a little annoyed with Knaus at times, and that did give us a glimpse of Johnson's more human side.
But Johnson's human side was even more apparent after Sunday's victory at Texas, when in three different interviews, he ended by reminding fans how they could donate to help victims from Hurricane Sandy.
Now, after a victory, the questions are of course all about the driver and the winning team. It's his moment, his time to shine, and as they all rightfully say, they are going to enjoy the moment because they realize the top of the mountain experiences in sports are rare.
And while there was the celebration in victory lane, which includes gunfire at Texas, Johnson wasn't pounding his chest, exuberantly attempting to remind the world that he is the so-called man. Somewhere along the line, he's figured out that others will let the world know how good he is.
If he does go on and wins this sixth title, as racing fans, we should take a second to appreciate what he has done.  Even if you're sick of him beating your favorite driver year after year, if you don't respect what he and his team have done, then you've got a problem. We could very well be in the midst of seeing one of the top two or three drivers in NASCAR history make more history.
But even if he doesn't win title No. 6, he alluded Sunday to the fact that being a father overrides what takes place on the track.  Sure, Johnson figured out what it takes to finish first in a race years ago. Now it seems, he's figured how to be a winner, too. And it's hard to dislike a guy who accomplishes that.

It's Week 9 of the Chase, the next to last race of the year, as the Sprint Cup series heads to Phoenix for Sunday's 2 p.m. race on ESPN. Of course, we all will be watching what points leader Jimmie Johnson and second-place Brad Keselowski do. Johnson has a seven-point lead going in and while Keselowski doesn't have to have a huge day, if he gains three or four points on the leader, that will set things up nicely for Homestead-Miami next week. However, if Keselowski loses, say even seven or eight points, he'll be in a tough spot to try and catch the five-time champion.
As for this Sunday, it would be a surprise if each Johnson and Keselowski were not on the top of their games. So, no matter what past history is telling us, they're each must picks this week.
Here's a look at this week's picks:
1. Jimmie Johnson. It's true he hasn't won in the last five races at Phoenix, but he does have four top-five finishes in those races and has led 187 laps. That may be bad news for Keselowski, because if a driver is leading that many laps and finishing that well at a track, that usually means a win is not too far away.
2. Brad Keselowski. Here we go again, ignoring so many of his past performances at Phoenix. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge has an average finish of 19.2 in his last five races there, but that doesn't mean there is no hope. Keselowski finished fifth in the spring race there and with so much on the line now, it's hard to imagine this team not being prepared for every scenario this week.
3. Denny Hamlin. After being a contender for the title until two races ago, he's been reduced to spoiler status now. Last week's performance at Texas, where he finished 20th, was a little disturbing because he has been so good there in the past and was never a factor Sunday. We'll give him one more chance this week as he has led 260 laps in the last five races at Phoenix, including one win.
4. Tony Stewart. He showed he was still giving his best all the way to the end with last week's fifth-place finish at Texas. And while this isn't a big issue, he probably would like to finish ahead of Hamlin and former crew chief Darian Grubb, just so he can say he had a better season with his hiring of this year's crew chief Steve Addington. While Stewart hasn't won in the last five races at Phoenix, he is second to Hamlin with 243 laps led in those races.
5. Kyle  Busch. The No. 18 team has had its frustrations this year for sure, including missing the Chase. But what I like about the team is that it continues to go out and compete and try to win races. Busch has led 194 laps in the last five trips to Phoenix, so based on that and his recent contention in races, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him in Victory Lane Sunday night.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Jeff Gordon. He got off on the wrong foot to start the Chase when his throttle stuck at Chicagoland, costing him what would have been at least a top 10 finish.  But Gordon has been a contender in several races since then and he does have a win in his last five races at Phoenix.

Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 8 of the Chase at Texas..
Jimmie Johnson  - 1st. The five-time champion displayed his poise and patience, using the final restart to get the edge and race to his 60th win of the year.
Brad Keselowski  - 2nd.  He was a contender to win at a track where he had traditionally struggled. That's a good sign for this team in the last two races.Denny Hamlin  - 20th. His recent and long-term history at Texas has been outstanding, so this finish was a real headscratcher.
Matt Kenseth  - 4th. For once, not a win or 30 plus finish for the Kenseth. He's had a nice rebound since a poor start in the Chase.
Greg Biffle - 10th. He has been traditionally strong at Texas, and while this was certainly no disaster, it was a bit of surprise that he didn't contend for the win.
Here's a look at my results after 34 races and 170 picks.
17 wins
54 top 5s
81 top 10s
Grade for the week: A-. That's a winner two weeks in a row thanks to Johnson, and Keselowski came through even though he had not been good at Texas. Picking three of thetop  five, and four of the top 10 is a pretty good day.
One last thing: Keselowski is trying to become the first Dodge driver to win a title since Richard Petty in 1975.

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