CUP: What’s The Guy Got To Do To Get Respect?

As Champion's Week in Las Vegas built to its annual exercise in awkwardness – the season-ending banquet – the last couple days, I began to wonder about about Feb. 20, 2011.

I began to wonder what will happen when Jimmie Johnson steps onto the front-straight stage at Daytona International Speedway for driver introductions prior to the start of the 500.

While I am thinking that finally, finally, Johnson will get his due from the fans and be greeted with the type of welcome which Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Richard Petty would be afforded, I am also thinking: Nah.

Such is the enigma surrounding the best stock car driver in the world. Instead of pondering whether the U.S. Postal Service should show Johnson clean shaven, or, wearing a beard when they introduce his 44-cent stamp, I’m wondering whether he will be showered with F-bombs at the sport’s biggest event.

Five straight championships in the most important racing series in North America. And at a time when the competition is by-freakin’-far at its all-time high. (Sorry, Earnhardt, Petty, Pearson fans; you’re guys never faced 20 or more equally-adroit challengers week after week during their days.)

In other times, in other places, in other sports, Johnson’s accomplishment would have produced weeping in little old ladies. Hallmark would have come out with a line of Jimmie Cards and FTD would be lobbying Congress for Jimmie Day.

Jimmie Johnson would be a national hero.

I remember one time my friend Frank and I were sitting in an outdoor restaurant on a beautiful Colorado day. Tables and chairs were crowded close together. Frank tried like crazy to strike up a conversation with the young woman at the next table.

He was crashing and burning. Until he weaseled out info that the woman was from Brazil. Frank, a major Formula One fan, ask if the woman was an Ayrton Senna fan.


It was not until a beautiful Colorado night that I was able to get Frank out of that restaurant. And Senna only won three World Championships!

My guess is that Jimmie Johnson will not be bringing young couples together anytime soon. My guess is he will settle for polite applause on that stage next February.

And the search for an answer to the question of “Why?” will go on.

It makes no sense.

A guy who tortured and killed dogs and reportedly laughed about is crowned King of Philadelphia. A guy who demonstrated the type of moral corruptness usually reserved for ancient Greek tragedies is publicly begged to come back and save the “sport” of golf. A guy who made a mockery of everything that college stands for is given the keys to Alabama.

Johnson, whose lone crime was falling off a golf cart, is treated like a pinata on Cinco de Mayo.

Another quick anecdote. Flying into some race somewhere one time, the flight attendant gets on the PA and says something like: I see we have a lot of NASCAR fans on board. Any Jimmie Johnson fans? A loud response from a guy in the back was issued: “F-ing pretty boy!”

And, man, everybody laughed.

My hope is that by winning No. 5, Johnson has reached That Point in his career. The point where an athlete or actor or muscians who has been unliked and under-appreciated for whatever reasons, can no longer be treated by sane people with anything but respect.

At some points in their careers everybody from Muhammad Ali to Elvis to Earnhardt reached that point.

We will find out next February whether or not Jimmie Johnson has.

Jim Pedley is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist who has worked at, among other places, the Boston Globe, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Kansas City Star. Pedley spent more than 10 years covering auto racing for the Kansas City Star. Pedley can be reached at