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ELLIOTT: Why Are So Many People Hostile Toward Jimmie Johnson?

ELLIOTT: Why Are So Many People Hostile Toward Jimmie Johnson?

by November 26, 2016 0 comments

I have a question for you guys this week: Why are so many people hostile toward Jimmie Johnson?

Honestly, from about five minutes after the end of the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway to this very moment, I’ve had to ardently defend JJ at least 100 times (a conservative estimate, by the way), and I don’t even pull for the guy.

Johnson is many things, what a savvy publicist would call a “total package.” Articulate. Charismatic. A dedicated family man. An incredibly talented race car driver.

And oh, yeah, he’s also a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, joining “The King” Richard Petty and “The Intimidator” Dale Earnhardt Sr. to increase the membership of that elite club from two to three. (On a side note, Johnson needs to get himself a cool nickname, something people can really get behind. Given the current public sentiment, “Uh-Oh” might work.)

Here’s the deal. Just because we don’t care for a particular athlete – and by “don’t care” I really mean “hate” – that doesn’t mean they aren’t deserving of our respect. As a Tarheel girl and someone who has probably (OK, definitely) made tens of thousands of inappropriate jokes about Christian Laettner over the years, I know whereof I speak. And don’t even get me started on Mike Krzyzewski.

I am writing this in an open-air, marina-side restaurant in North Myrtle Beach SC, soliciting opinions from the folks next to me. One of them turns out (I think, he was a little sketchy on the details) to be Mike Posma, a former pro hockey player and coach who tells me stories about hanging out backstage with Warren Zevon at Saturday Night Live and The Late Show with David Letterman, (as a guest of Warren Zevon). Another is Mike’s girlfriend, Doris, who loves Dale Sr. and loathes Bill Elliott, for reasons of which she is somewhat unclear.

Yet another diehard Earnhardt fan and a friend of mine, Russ, once told me a story about attending the Southern 500 and having the misfortune of sitting next to a random Rusty Wallace fan who – and I quote – “stood up and gave Earnhardt the finger every single lap for 500 miles.” Now, that’s some dedicated dislike.

In sports, an athlete’s “hatred ranking” can sell just as many logoed souvenirs as his popularity quotient. After all, what is a hero without a villain?

This is by no means specific to NASCAR. For every beloved Michael Jordan, the patron saint of not one but TWO cities, there is a disgruntled “I don’t get the respect that’s coming to me” Kobe Bryant. For every iconic Arnold Palmer, there is a fallen-from-grace Tiger Woods. For every so-perfect-he’s-just-on-my-last-nerve Tom Brady, there is an All-American golden boy Peyton Manning.

In sports, sometimes hate for one team or athlete spawns irrational love for another. The two emotions cannot exist independently of each other.

This, I think, is the genesis of the Jimmie Johnson backlash. As NASCAR fans, we have spent most of our lives with Petty, and later Earnhardt, at the forefront of our collective consciousness. They were the absolute best, the undisputed greatest drivers of all time. Their records could never be broken.

Until they were. Until another driver showed us that, while The King and The Intimidator were truly legendary, the records they set just might not be unbreakable after all. Those big personalities and trademark hats are burned into our psyches as symbols of what a NASCAR champion is supposed to look like, but just because a guy doesn’t fit into the boxes of our preconceptions doesn’t mean he is undeserving.

In NASCAR, titles are earned, not bestowed.

We now have a reigning champion who is virtually guaranteed to represent NASCAR in superlative fashion over the course of the next year, just as he has six times in the past. In a time when ratings, attendance and the like are waning, isn’t it interesting that in 2017 and beyond we have the chance to see history not only be matched, but made?

The central figure in this equation is Jimmie Johnson, who next season will embark on a quest to become NASCAR’s first eight-time champion. It doesn’t matter whether you love him or hate him, you know you’ll be watching … and so will I.

Photo Credit: Hunter Thomas

Cathy Elliott

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