Jimmie Johnson: Unchallenged in NASCAR, unappreciated in Charlotte

Jimmie Johnson sat at one table at the South Boulevard sushi restaurant and Sean May, then with the Charlotte Bobcats, sat at another. Johnson was eating dinner with a small group of friends. May was eating dinner with a large entourage.

Johnson is much better at his job than May was at his, yet May attracted much more attention.

Johnson, who lives in Charlotte, is the least appreciated athlete in our town, in his sport and perhaps in sports.

On Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he ought to win his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Johnson clinches if he finishes 23rd or higher.

How many teams or individuals have attained the success Johnson has? He won five straight championships, failed to win in 2011 or 2012, and here he comes again.

If he wins, fans of every driver but Johnson will react with yawns or with anger, and fans of conspiracies will claim the sport is fixed.

Only two drivers have won more championships than Johnson; Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt each won seven. Petty won his sixth championship when he was 38. Earnhardt won his sixth championship when he was 42. Johnson is 38, and could win his sixth on Sunday.

Just a guess. But if Johnson wins in 2013 and threatens to in 2014, some fans won’t be pleased, and he’ll be booed as if he’s Kyle Busch.

Petty is the King, and the King wears a cowboy hat, a belt buckle the size of a toddler and dark sunglasses that hide his eyes. No champion in any sport has been more gracious because it’s impossible to be. To meet Petty is to like him, and he did for his sport what Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan did for theirs.

Earnhardt was the Intimidator, and the Intimidator wore what he wanted. Fans who couldn’t stand their employers got their kicks through Earnhardt, who would never let anybody push him around. When the black 3 appeared in the rearview mirror of competitors, the lesser would crumble. The stronger might be spun.

Johnson is neither King nor Intimidator. He is Five-Time, a nickname that attests to his success but not to who he is.

Johnson wore a black cowboy hat after winning at Texas Motor Speedway on Nov.3. He didn’t look like a bad man in a black hat and he didn’t look like a cowboy. He looked like a guy dressing up like a cowboy.

His work will dazzle you only if you’re dazzled by patience, smooth driving and sustained excellence.

If Johnson were an NFL star, he’d hand the ball to the referee after ripping off a 33-yard run. If he were an NBA star, fans might not be able to recall a single dunk, cross-over dribble or no-look pass all evening. But the box score would indicate that he scored 33 points and his team won.

I talked to Matt Kenseth, who is second in the points race, for the first time last month. He was so funny and so dry and so Upper Midwest sarcastic that when I walked away I thought, “I’m a giant moron for not talking to him before this.”

When I walk away from an interview with Johnson, this is always the impression: He’s courteous, smart and interesting, and nothing he does suggests he’s a big deal and the rest of us are not.

That’s a pretty good way to go through life.

Some of Johnson’s detractors think he and crew chief Chad Knaus are serial swindlers. There were infractions in the past, but they’re not the only ones, as the King and Michael Waltrip will attest. You mean to tell me racers are looking for an edge? Next you’ll contend that professional wrestlers hit each other with metal folding chairs.

Other detractors – well, some might be the same detractors – attribute Johnson’s success to his employer, Rick Hendrick. I’ve toured Hendrick’s operation and the place was so pristine I felt as if I should take off my shoes. Employees were so gracious I felt as if I should whisper.

Hendrick is fantastic. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne race for him, too. Although they made the Chase, they never threatened to win it.

Johnson might be the greatest driver the sport has ever seen.

Most of us won’t realize it until he walks away. Then, about every promising newcomer we will say: He’s good, but he’s no Jimmie Johnson.

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