Johnson’s all business, and his biz is winning

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Jimmie Johnson is a nice guy. Polite. Earnest. Well-meaning. The biggest criticism of him during his run to a record four consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup titles is that he’s too vanilla, that he doesn’t generate any tangible emotion (love or loathe).

Then came Sunday. In his drive for five (titles in a row), Johnson’s pit crew was having an off night, costing their driver precious seconds. Rival Denny Hamlin was flying around Texas Motor Speedway, poised to take the lead in the Chase. So Johnson – and crew chief Chad Knaus – made an unorthodox move:

In the middle of the race, they dumped their pit crew and brought in Jeff Gordon’s guys, who were idled after their driver had crashed.

A mid-race replacement? This was nearly unprecedented for a driver in such a high-stakes position.

It proved to be too little too late. Hamlin won the race and leapfrogged Johnson for a small but important 33-point lead with just two races remaining.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus will have a different over-the-wall crew in Phoenix.

Johnson’s crew wasn’t forgiven post-race. With a fifth consecutive title slipping away, they were canned Monday for the rest of the season in favor of Gordon’s crew, with whom they share a garage at Hendrick Motorsports.

“I just watched the World Series and when a pitcher is not doing his job, they make a change and get someone in who can [get the job done],” Johnson explained Sunday.

But this means way, way more than that.

This is the Machiavellian Jimmie Johnson, the Belichickian Jimmie Johnson. This is the cut-throat competitor that those around him have always described. Yes, Knaus and others were involved in the decision to overhaul the team in the midst of the most important part of the season. At the end of the day, though, it’s Jimmie Johnson’s team and he no doubt approves of the move.

Some fans think it might be a mean-spirited, disloyal maneuver. After all, these are (for the most part) the same crew members that helped win him those previous four Sprint Cup titles. Fair enough. Others see it a sign of panic or misplaced blame. Perhaps.

Johnson isn’t looking for fan approval, though. The great champions never do, and there is an endearing quality to watching one make bold, decisive and difficult decisions in the heat of battle.

Johnson is a ferocious competitor, a trait that belies the nice-guy interviews and charisma-light persona. I spent last season doing a series of stories with him, from Daytona in February through his final celebration in South Florida in November. Watching his intensity ramp up as the year went on was impressive.

He works out relentlessly all year round in an effort to gain the slightest advantage. (“The cars are so well built now, it’s sometimes the driver that breaks down first,” he explained.) His pre-race prep and post-race study is legendary. He demands complete focus and total commitment from everyone in the organization once the Chase nears.

Visiting with him in the middle of the Chase, I found a different personality than in the spring.

Winning is too precious not to pursue. After four titles, he still isn’t the least bit satisfied.

And so now we have this situation, where the guys who got him here aren’t delivering and got sent packing. The best available replacement team has been brought in. It’s a cold move. No doubt there is anger, hurt feelings and resentment.

For Johnson, this is business, and the business of winning is what matters. He’s the bottom-line coach who refuses to let personal feelings stand in the way of what he’s here to accomplish.

“I don’t think people understand. It’s not an easy decision,” Knaus told the Associated Press on Tuesday as he defended Johnson and the decision. “There are emotions involved. We love our guys. We eat, sleep, drink with them. We win with them and we lose with them. But ultimately, it is bigger than seven guys.”

It’s about history. It’s about getting the maximum effort. It’s about putting Johnson and his car in the best possible position to win.

In other sports, stars get traded, veterans get released, good guys get benched. In NASCAR, fans can either hate that mentality or they can appreciate it. Neither emotion is wrong.

What’s undeniable is this: If you thought Jimmie Johnson was just some happy-go-lucky driver who rode superior technology to all this glory, you’re wrong. He’s the most relentless guy at the track. Those four titles didn’t come by being nice.

If he’s going down, he’s going down with fists clenched and swinging.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Nov 10, 2010