Jimmie Johnson, standing on the doorstep of NASCAR history, doesn’t dispute the impression that he hasn’t received the respect and acceptance from fans that the two legendary drivers he’s pursuing once did.
“Anybody who is winning gets booed,” said Johnson, who as one of the Chase’s championship four drivers, can tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with a seventh Cup championship Sunday in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “When you get older and don’t win as much, you get cheered a bit more. I get more cheers now, so I hope that doesn’t mean I’m running out of wins and championships.”
Johnson, 41, is underselling the recent achievements of what will certainly be a Hall of Fame-worthy career. Although he hasn’t won a title since 2013 (and his string of five consecutive titles beginning in 2006 has long since been snapped), he is a regular participant in the Chase. He has four victories this season, two of which allowed him to comfortably advance through the second and third rounds of the postseason.
But the idea persists that Johnson will never be fully embraced by many NASCAR fans. He came from southern California, far from the sport’s southern roots. He grew up racing on desert dirt near his hometown of El Cajon, Calif., not on the ovals on which most of his rivals grew up.
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And Johnson’s pleasant, even-keeled personality has often been described as simply boring. Win or lose, he often didn’t show much emotion. Johnson’s often-conservative driving style has also been criticized.
If he does (win), I’m going to say congratulations. If he doesn’t, try again next year.
“I was talking to someone a little bit earlier, and they said Jimmie seems to be very vanilla,” said Rick Hendrick, Johnson’s owner since he broke into the Cup circuit in 2001. “Jimmie is everything but vanilla. He may come across at the track that way because he’s so focused and driven, and he thinks like a computer when he’s in the car if you listen to him give feedback or break it down, or in a debrief. The way he eats, the way he exercises, everything is about physical and mental fitness for the race car.”
Said Johnson: “I hear that. (But) through the way I experience things with our fans, the great articles I see written, the way people talk about me, I feel like I’ve received a lot of respect. I don’t know what Petty and Earnhardt experienced during their moments in time.”
Johnson does appear to have the full respect of his competitors.
“People don’t like to see someone win all the time,” said team owner Roger Penske, who will have driver Joey Logano going for his first championship Sunday. “Well, I love to win all the time. I wish I had my driver going for the seventh championship. Rick (doesn’t have to apologize) for (Johnson). I think he’s the best.”
Petty, who has already experienced Earnhardt tying his mark of seven titles (in 1994), didn’t seem fully on board with Johnson joining their club when asked about it recently.
Johnson’s most recent championship came in 2013. He won five in a row from 2006-10.
“Being that I don’t have a dog in the hunt, I don’t care,” Petty said. “If he does (win), I’m going to say congratulations. If he doesn’t, try again next year.”
Johnson was growing up when the late Earnhardt – one of the sports’s most beloved but also polarizing figures -- challenged Petty’s record. He also competed with Jeff Gordon – another star who was born in California – as Gordon won four titles.
“I watched Earnhardt get booed. I watched Gordon get booed,” Johnson said.
79 Career victories by Johnson
Of course, Johnson has been dealing with the seventh-title question since he won No. 6 in 2013. But this is the closest he’s come to winning another, as he fell short of making the championship round in each of the past two seasons.
But as Johnson has advanced through this season’s Chase, he has fully embraced his pursuit of Petty and Earnhardt.
“I’m not running from it; I’m not hiding from it,” he said. “But it’s for me to do my job and the preparation and all the stuff that goes into racing and being competitive, (the title) is just not top of mind. I mean, yes, the championship is (important), but it’s more about winning the race. I’m happy to talk about it. I don’t know what else to add to it, and I am just all in trying to win the race, in that mindset.”
Johnson has even been wearing a helmet that has the images of Petty and Earnhardt painted on the back. Between them, the words “Chasing 7” are written.
“We just wanted to pay respect to Dale and to Richard,” Johnson said.
Average finish at Homestead: 21.1.
Storyline: Going for second consecutive title.
Average finish at Homestead: 9.2.
Storyline: Best shot at title since 2011, when he was second
Average finish at Homestead: 14.1
Storyline: Chasing record-tying seventh championship.
Average finish at Homestead: 7.9.
Storyline: Also made final four in 2014, going for first title.