Jimmie Johnson, nice guy. Vanilla, not like one of those cool chocolate-swirl flavors.
It’s his scarlet letter in the NASCAR Nation, which sometimes looks at him as if he came from another planet. He was born in El Cajon, Calif., the state that spawned all those beatniks who love sipping on their double-shot cappuccinos while listening to hippie-dippy music.
That must be it.
The thing is, Johnson is a Southern man now, living in Charlotte with his wife and two daughters. He earns his living in the grind and grit of stock-car racing, spinning laps around the competition trying desperately to keep up.
If he wins on Sunday, Johnson will keep company with the two biggest names in NASCAR history, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, joining them as seven-time Cup season champions.
And then, at some point in time along the Interwebs, someone will take their shot at Johnson, but it won’t really matter.
Win or lose, Jimmie Johnson is one of the greatest stock-car drivers of this generation. Deal with it.
“I think the reason he has been labeled vanilla is that he shows up to do a job and he focuses so hard,” said his boss, Rick Hendrick, point man for Hendrick Motorsports. “That’s why he’s a six-time champion.
“And sometimes his dedication to that makes it seem as if he’s not outgoing, doesn’t have the personality.”
Johnson openly embraces the drive for seven. It’s been that way since Oct. 30, when he won at Martinsville to become the first driver to qualify for the Championship 4 format in Sunday’s EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
He races against Joey Logano, Carl Edwards and defending Cup champion Kyle Busch. First man to the finish line wins.
The other storylines are dramatic, but nearly as compelling as that of Johnson. Each and every sport is embedded and enriched by history. Johnson stands on that precipice.
“I never thought I’d ever see a seventh championship in my lifetime by any driver,” said NASCAR Fox Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Cup champion himself. “At the time, what Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty did was sort of unheard of. No one has come close until Jimmie Johnson came along.
And that leads to a greater point. Johnson is only 41, and with Tony Stewart retiring, following Jeff Gordon’s lead, Johnson is quickly rising up the charts as one of the most established voices in the garage, with a lot of miles left to race.
Johnson began Cup racing in 2001, competing in three races and leading exactly zero laps in 761 spins. He has now accumulated 155,081 of those, along with 79 victories to go with those six championships.
He’s also managed to avoid the prickly situations that often pop up along the way. Johnson’s competitive demeanor is driven by winning, and not by slamming another car into the wall.
It leads back to the “vanilla” thing, and unfair comparisons to those icons, Earnhardt (The Intimidator) and Petty (The King).
“If you saw him mountain-biking with friends or playing golf with friends, he’s jovial, he’s full of fun,” Hendrick said. “When he shows up at the track he’s all business. He’s a student of the sport. He studies what he needs to do. He eats certain foods. He works out.”
He also bikes. Runs. Competes in triathlons. Has even established a Wellness Challenge through his charitable foundation. His wife, Chandra, is a former model. His two girls are lovely.
Maybe there’s just a touch to envy in the nitpicking over his racing persona.
“The way I experience things with fans, the great articles I’ve seen written and the way they talk about me I feel there’s a lot of respect,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what Petty and Earnhardt experienced during their moments. I think anybody who’s winning gets booed.
“The question has been asked a lot, so I do have curiosity wondering what it was like for those guys and if at some level, there is a lack of respect for what I’ve accomplished. But I haven’t experienced it firsthand.”
Feel free to cheer, boo or be indifferent. Regardless of how it plays out, no one will be better prepared than Johnson. He even planned on taking a run on Saturday night. The distance? Do you have to ask?
“It’s got to be seven,” he said. “I’ve just got something with that number.”