The more I see of Jimmie Johnson – and I’ve been seeing a lot of him lately on almost every TV news channel – the more impressed I am by him.
Understand, Johnson’s national exposure is nothing new. This is the fifth consecutive season in which he represents NASCAR as its champion.
But it almost seems that Jimmie is just now finally – almost grudgingly – being appreciated for what he truly is: A great driver and a splendid representative of his sport. He’s NASCAR’s Mr. Perfect.
Nobody, not even the most rabid Hendrick Motorports detractors, can deny that Johnson ranks high among the greatest drivers ever to buckle on a helmet. No driver in NASCAR history ever put together a five-year string to equal Jimmie’s.
He has won five straight titles during a period in which there are more good drivers in the field – top to bottom – than at any time in NASCAR history.
Johnson’s talent and ability are indisputable.
About the only thing critics can criticize is Johnson’s persona, which is as impeccable as his performance. They claim he’s too bland, too vanilla, too white-bread to represent a sport founded by rowdies and rascals.
I used to feel the same way. But I’ve changed my mind.
The old days of stock car racing are gone, and gone forever. There are no more refugees from the mills and farms and factories who took to racing to escape the tedium and pursue a better paycheck.
The days of skinned knuckles, dirty fingernails and tobacco splats on pit road are over. Ditto for the era of wild neon nights, trackside temptress and automobiles bobbing in motel swimming pools.
It’s a New NASCAR, and has been for several years. Goodbye Curtis Turner and Little Joe Weatherly, hello Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
The New NASCAR is part image, part performance, and Jimmie personifies both. He is clean-cut and articulate, handsome and personable, a domesticated family man whose only personal-life “controversy” involved falling off a golf cart.
In this sport there are no secrets. If there’s something going on in a driver’s off-camera life you quickly hear the whispers, and so far Johnson’s life remains whisper-free.
How many other pro sports would crawl through broken glass and glowing embers to have a flawless superstar like Johnson as its face in public? How many parents would be delighted for their kids to emulate Jimmie’s character and life-style?
And he’s going to be around for awhile. As incredible as the past five seasons have been for Johnson, he’s only 35 and in his prime. If the past and the present are incredible for NASCAR’s Mr. Perfect, just imagine what the future holds.
Larry Woody is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist. Woody began working at the Nashville Tennessean in the 1960s and took over the auto racing beat full time in the early 1970s. Larry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.