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Sports Then and Now

Jimmie Johnson Rules NASCAR, But Is His Reign Good For the Sport?

Posted on February 26, 2010 by Dean Hybl

Auto Club 500

Jimmie Johnson's victory in the Auto Club 500 is just a reminder of his dominance.

The victory by four-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson in the second race of the season is an early reminder to the other drivers in NASCAR that this is Johnson’s sport and he is simply letting everyone else round out the field.

After struggling in the season opener at Daytona, you knew Johnson would be looking for a strong showing in his home state of California. His victory was his second straight at Fontana and fourth in the last six races there.

Now the drivers head to Las Vegas where Johnson won three straight times between 2005 and 2007, but has struggled with disappointing finishes the last two years (29th in 2008, 24th in 2009). Given his competitive nature, watch for Johnson to again be near the front at the end of the race on Sunday.

Johnson’s dominance of the sport has come at a time when NASCAR is struggling to maintain the growth in the fan base that has occurred over the past decade.

Because Johnson is not the typical car-loving, spend all day under the hood guy from the Southeast that has historically been your prototype for a NASCAR driver, he and fellow Californian Jeff Gordon have been given some of the credit for bringing people outside of the core fan base into racing.

Who is Your Favorite NASCAR Driver?

  • Jeff Burton (23%, 5 Votes)
  • Jimmie Johnson (18%, 4 Votes)
  • Jeff Gordon (14%, 3 Votes)
  • Tony Stewart (14%, 3 Votes)
  • Other (14%, 3 Votes)
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. (9%, 2 Votes)
  • Carl Edwards (5%, 1 Votes)
  • Mark Martin (5%, 1 Votes)
  • Kyle Busch (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 22

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However, now that many of those new fans seem to have gone back to focusing on other things, some are saying that Johnson’s California mentality and approach of NASCAR as a business, rather than as a passion, is damaging the sport because he doesn’t connect with the traditional fan base.

Johnson may be a businessman during the week, but he is a racer on Sundays.

Johnson may be a businessman during the week, but he is a racer on Sundays.

For the best driver in the sport to not be a “good old boy” from the Carolinas, Georgia or Virginia and without motor oil running through his veins is tough for some NASCAR die-hards to accept.

One thing you could point to as an illustration that Johnson is all about the business, rather than the passion, is his approach to the Nationwide Series.

While many of the top drivers in the premier Sprint Cup Series come to town early and compete in the Nationwide Series the day before the main event, Johnson has chosen to join his fellow Californian Gordon in going a completely different route.

Since becoming a regular on the main series in 2002, Johnson has appeared in only 20 Nationwide Series races and none since 2008. Gordon has not appeared in a Nationwide race since 2000.

They are a stark contrast to some of the other top drivers in NASCAR. Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards are among the top Sprint Cup contenders that still run a regular Nationwide schedule and Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kevin Harvick are among the drivers who compete in at least a few Nationwide events each season.

Another often frustrating thing for Johnson’s dissenters is his uncanny ability to benefit from good fortune. The race last weekend provides the latest example as he was making his final pit stop when a late caution flag came out. He was able to get to the scoring line ahead of the drivers on the track and secure the position needed to pull out the victory.

But while NASCAR die-hards may be disenchanted with Johnson’s approach and occasional luck, they can’t argue with his results. He has won 48 races, including 24 between 2007 and 2009. Since 2002 he has finished in the top five in the points standings every season, including a pair of second place showings and the last four titles.

However, despite that success, Johnson has never been in contention for the “Most Popular Driver” award. In fact, that the award has only gone to three different drivers (all Southerners) in the last 19 years (Bill Elliott 11 times, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 7 times and Dale Earnhardt once) illustrates that NASCAR is still a sport strengthened by its Southern roots.

As NASCAR looks to maintain the gains made over the past decade they must find a balance between marketing Johnson and other new-era drivers to a wide audience while also recognizing that the core fan base is not enamored with the glamour boys.

It is a tough tight rope to maneuver and one that gets tougher to manage every time Johnson points his Lowe’s Chevrolet to Victory Lane.

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