As Jimmie Johnson stood alongside fellow title contenders Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Joey Logano in the back of a pickup waving to the fans before the start of last season’s Cup Series championship final, he witnessed something unfamiliar.
Instead of the boos and middle finger salutes that customarily accompanied him during pre-race driver introductions, fans inside Homestead-Miami Speedway were actually indicating their support for the man who in just a few hours would go on to win a seventh championship, tying the hallowed mark shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
“I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again; it was actually seven,” Johnson said. “All the way around the racetrack everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps like, ‘Wow, what an interesting shift in things.’”
That Johnson is becoming accepted by fans almost feels unnatural. After all, according to popular convention, his success is a result of two predominant factors, neither of which related to his own talent.
First, he was plucked out of relative obscurity by Jeff Gordon and planted in a plum ride with NASCAR’s blue blood organization, Hendrick Motorsports, where the resources and money are never lacking. Then, Johnson was paired with mastermind crew chief Chad Knaus, whose ability at making a car go fast is equaled by a deserved reputation for working in the gray margins of the rulebook, as evident by a rap sheet of technical infractions found on the No. 48 Chevrolet through the years.
So, while Johnson may be humble, friendly, and never once has been involved in an unscrupulous deed on the track unlike so many contemporaries, it didn’t matter. Fans had their justification as to why Johnson won a record five straight championships from 2006-10, then a sixth in 2013. In NASCAR’s weekly play that crisscrosses the country, he had been cast as the villain by those who attend the spectacles.
“When you’re associated with Hendrick Motorsports a lot of people look at it like, you’re in the best cars with the best team and you should be winning,” Jeff Gordon told SB Nation. “So it takes longer to earn the respect you truly deserve when you’re having the tremendous success like Jimmie is doing. When you’re setting new bars and standards like he has.”
Not that any of this is uncharted. It’s a similar role several drivers have starred in over the years, from Petty to Earnhardt, Gordon to Darrell Waltrip. That’s what happens in NASCAR when you win with too much frequency and at the expense of veterans who fans have grown to adore. In many facets, the hostility is almost a sign of utmost respect.
“Most people love a winner and in most other sports that’s the case,” Waltrip told SB Nation. “But in our sport people are reluctant to accept you and appreciate what you can do. It takes time.”
He may now be revered as “The Man in Black,” and “The Intimidator,” but it wasn’t until late in his career that Earnhardt started receiving more cheers than boos. Waltrip was once nicknamed “Jaws” by rival Cale Yarborough because of his penchant for boastful statements and had a large volume of detractors. Upon Gordon’s arrival in the early 1990s, he was viewed as the upstart kid who unceremoniously edged Earnhardt off the top of the championship mountain.
“Fans, I think, have a hard time accepting change,” Waltrip said. “Respect is earned and people are slow to give it to you because they have someone they like, they pull for, and all of a sudden there is this new guy beating their heroes.”
But throughout NASCAR history, the bad guy eventually evolves into the good guy. Although such a transformation comes with a catch: The driver once scorned for winning too much begins finding it difficult to reach victory lane at all.
Such is why Johnson found himself in an unfamiliar position back at Homestead in November. Although he was among the four title-eligibles, his path to get there had been windy and including a seven-month gap between victories. A 24-race winless stretch represented the longest of his career.
“People like winners, but they want to see people go through some struggles along the way. To become more real,” Gordon said. “What happened when he won five in a row, it was like he could do no wrong. Like he was too perfect, like it was too easy, and though Jimmie and the team worked their butt off, from the outside looking in it looked almost too good to be true.
“Until you had to show people that you had to fight for it, that you had to earn it, you don’t always get that respect.”
Johnson agrees with Gordon’s belief that for some time fans had a perception that success may have come far easier than it actually did. Which is why those same fans have been more supportive as of late than ever before.
Because while he had won two of the six playoff races entering Homestead, many hadn’t forgotten his summer slump, the rare exhibit of futility by Johnson and the No. 48 team. Nor did they forget that for each of the previous two years he had been abruptly knocked out of the playoffs in the second (2014) and first (2015) rounds, not because of his own undoing but more so due to circumstances out his control and bad luck.
But now that Johnson has a seventh title sitting on his mantle and enters Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 (2 p.m. ET, Fox) as the defending series champion, a natural question arises: Should the 41-year-old expect fans to revert back to their antagonistic form?
Gordon believes Johnson’s relationship with the fans has turned a corner. Through social media fans have gotten to know Johnson on a more personal level, he says. They’ve come to realize that he comes from modest beginnings and had to claw his way up. He’s a family man and someone with an adventurous streak, and not the bland corporate spokesperson as so many portray him as.
“I quit trying to figure them out a long time ago,” Johnson laughs. “But if I look at past history, age does bring respect. I saw the tail end of Earnhardt’s career where the boos transitioned to cheers and I saw Gordon go through the same thing. And I hope that I keep winning, but that I also get the respect for being around for a long time, too.”