Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Johnson Well On Way To 2009 Championship - Fans Say Ho Hum?

With five races to go in the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, it appears that NASCAR's version of Mr. October, Jimmie Johnson has his fourth Cup nearly in hand.

It's understandable, with the economy in such poor shape, that ticket sales at the track have been down for 2009.  One would suppose that if one couldn't afford a ticket, the price of gas to travel, the price of a place to stay, etc., that one might have to make do watching the races on TV.

That doesn't seem to be happening though.  TV ratings are basically down across the board for most of the races this year.  Saturday's race at Charlotte was down by sharply in the ratings from last year, when the race was held on a Saturday evening, head to head with college football, the same as this year.

What could the matter be?  It would seem that Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are setting in stone a bona fide NASCAR dynasty, putting up some incredible numbers again for the fourth year in a row.  Normally, one would think that these would be exciting times for NASCAR, but the TV ratings don't seem to be reflecting that.

I've been reading a lot of fans' comments over the last few days.  Some of them are very interesting.  "It's only exciting if you're a Jimmie Johnson fan" seems to be a popular comment.  Others say that the racing is just boring.  The blame for boring racing ranges from NASCAR's rules to the new car.  Others blame the television coverage itself, saying they cannot stand to listen to certain commentators or analysts.

I'm not going to try to come up with an answer for boring racing here, or for how to improve TV coverage.  In other articles on this site, I've already shed some theories on those topics.  I will hazard a guess as to some fans' animosity towards Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team though.

To the casual observer, Jimmie Johnson should be a sports' perfect champion and spokesman.  Johnson has the looks of a movie actor, some would say.  Jimmie is rather soft spoken, and his comments rarely provoke controversy.  He displays a certain sense of humor at times during his interviews, and never fails to thank his sponsors, his team, and his owners.

To some hard core NASCAR fans, the above description of NASCAR's reigning champion is precisely what's not to like about him.  NASCAR largely thrives on a certain level of controversy, whether it is in the form of incidents on the race track, or words spoken in the heat of emotion during post action interviews.  Rarely do we see Jimmie Johnson deviate from the company line when it comes to interviews.

Perhaps many fans remember the old rivalries between drivers like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, or Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip, or Earnhardt and Bodine, or perhaps Earnhardt and just about anyone.  If nothing else, Dale Earnhardt got people riled up and talking about NASCAR.  The 'Intimidator' moniker that Earnhardt carried through much of his career was well earned, both on and off the track.

Jimmie Johnson has almost entirely the opposite personality off the track as did Dale Earnhardt.  If Jimmie is ever confrontational with another driver, it's well outside of camera or microphone range.  On the track, Jimmie Johnson is known as a very competitive driver, and he has certainly been part of his share of on the track scuffles, but he's not known as an overly aggressive driver, but rather as a patient racer.  It's easy to be patient, however, when you're nearly always running at or very near the front of the field.  "Fearless" does not really describe Jimmie's driving style.  "Smart" might be more descriptive.

"Smart" could certainly describe crew chief Chad Knaus, who certainly has earned a reputation as one of the best, if not THE best crew chiefs in the garage, and is another anomaly to long time NASCAR fans.  Knaus reminds many of the fans more of a college science professor, or maybe a high tech engineer than he does a crew chief.  Many racing fans think of crew chiefs as tough guys with more grease under their fingernails than a lifetime of scrubbing can remove.  Chad comes across as a guy who does the heavy lifting with his cerebrum.

I'm only offering a few theories here, and certainly cannot claim that anything I'm saying here as fact.  Personally, I feel that NASCAR is not in trouble, nor is it losing fans.  I think the fans are just not as interested this year as they have been in years past.  Maybe it's like the World Series or the Super Bowl to some baseball or NFL fans:  If you live, say, in Texas, a championship game between a California team and a New York team just isn't as interesting as if the Astros or the Rangers were playing, or the Cowboys or the Oilers.

One other theory that I will present:  NASCAR fans don't automatically like the driver who wins the most races or championships.  Some fans like a driver because we like the man, who happens to also be a driver.  I think in many ways this could explain why Dale Earnhardt Jr. has such a large following.  I myself am a Dale Jr. fan, and though I wish he could win more races and at least one championship, I won't stop being a fan of Junior if he doesn't.  Like many of his fans, I like Junior because he seems like a nice, down to earth kind of guy.  The kind of guy you'd want to sit down and have a beer with.

Many people attribute Junior's fan base to his father, and in large part, that's certainly true.  A lot of his fans never saw his father drive though, and seem to have formed their opinion of Junior independently, based on something other than who is father was.  There's very little about Dale Jr. that reminds me much of his father, except maybe his accent and the look he gets in his eyes when he's focused.  Dale Jr.'s driving style and personality are very different from his old man's, though in many ways he's lived through some of the same experiences as his father had.

Jimmie Johnson has become what his co-owner and friend Jeff Gordon was to the sport in the 1990's.  In the early part of that decade, this kid comes along, gets a ride on a top team, and proceeds to win everything there was to win, and more.  In the early 2000's, Jeff finds a young kid nobody had ever heard of, and darned if this new kid isn't winning everything there is to win again.

There are many fans who will never be Jeff Gordon fans, just like there are many fans who will never be Jimmie Johnson fans.  The fans themselves have their reasons for this, just like there are many who will never be Earnhardt or Earnhardt Jr. fans.

Next month, NASCAR will present the Sprint Cup to someone, and that someone is likely to be Jimmie Johnson.  If that is the case, Jimmie will be the first driver to ever win 4 consecutive Cups.

Like Jimmie Johnson or not, that's a heck of an achievement for any race car driver.

photo credit:  Glenn Smith, Associated Press

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