Jimmie Johnson jokes that early in his career he was "falsely accused of being boring," which is just wry enough of a line that a boring guy couldn't say it.
It may have been a false charge but it wasn't one that didn't have some supporting evidence. Even as he captured his second or third consecutive title, he was, well, a little boring.
Those days are gone though, disappearing about the same time his respect as a driver became undeniable to all but a few Neanderthals. Johnson's turned into a pretty colorful guy, funny on Twitter, brash in interviews and walking around with all the confidence a guy going for his sixth consecutive Sprint Cup title should. He's now NASCAR's most intimidating presence (seriously … more on that later).
Yet in a sport that moves so fast, perceptions change slowly.
Just this week CNBC declared "Jimmie Johnson going for six straight titles is bad for NASCAR."
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Johnson graced the cover of Sports Illustrated this week. Sprint Cup television ratings are (at last) surging. And the five-time defending champ just put together a two-week comeback from the brink to third in the standings that was pretty damn riveting.
That's bad for NASCAR?
Saturday it continues with a primetime opportunity, the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. No one is suggesting that the entire country has been drawn into the Chase, but those that aren't are missing something pretty special.
No one has ever won this many titles in a row, which has turned Johnson's annual autumn run into a recurring charge at history. How's he going to do it this year? Can anyone stop him? If so, who gets to slay the king?
"Everybody wants to be that guy who ends the streak," Denny Hamlin said a year ago, when he made his second strong run at Johnson only to fall in the end.
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The streak has taken on a life of its own; something that any smart fan realizes is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime storyline. It creates an urgency that makes every result matter.
When Johnson "struggled" the first two weeks of this year's Chase, fans tuned in to see if this was the end. Johnson responded in spectacular fashion – a second- and a first-place finish. Now they'll keep coming. (And, yes, we know Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in the Chase this year, but if Johnson gets all the blame for bad ratings, he deserves some of the credit for good ones).
"Ah, I don't care," Johnson said Thursday from Charlotte. "And I think it's wrong anyway."
He's right about that. Johnson has turned into the best thing NASCAR has going for it.
With his success has come some personal freedom, which has allowed his personality to flourish. He claims he hasn't changed a bit when it comes to interviews or public image, but he wasn't this outspoken, this daring and, indeed, this funny (at least on Twitter) back when he was just getting going.
Johnson was the ultimate outsider, a Southern California dirt bike rider who had to kick in doors to get his career in NASCAR going. He disagrees, but it's understandable if he was a bit more buttoned up in the early part of his career when he didn't have a guaranteed ride, sponsor or spot in the pack.
Five championships later, there is no such fear.
"I wouldn't say I've changed but now that I have won championships, now that I've become a five-time champion, there are topics I should voice an opinion on," he said.
So he talks more. He's less politically correct. Most of all, he rarely misses an opportunity to remind everyone else in the field who keeps winning every year. Johnson is the new-age Intimidator – he just isn't going to fight you after the race.
The vision of him in your rearview mirror, though, be it on the track or in the standings, can scare even the most veteran driver. When Hamlin took a lead into the final race at Homestead-Miami last year, Johnson spent much of the pre-race press conference trying to rattle him. It worked.
Hamlin completed his collapse that Sunday. Johnson celebrated in South Beach again. He wants to be in everyone's head. He wants them wondering what he's doing that they aren't.
"I think that the other drivers will feel that pressure from the 48 [Johnson] in particular," Hamlin, who qualified for the Chase but isn't in the championship picture, said Friday. "I think that these last few weeks he's been exceptionally strong. … I think the other guys are going to start to watch him a little bit more than watching the guys that are necessarily around [them] in points because they feel like he is the bar in which the championship is set. I think they may start to chase him these next few weeks versus trying to work on their own program and get the best finish for them."
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That is the dominance. That is what's at stake. Johnson keeps making history, keeps earning respect, keeps slowly telling his story and it gets harder and harder for people to not respect him. You can root against him, but like the Yankees or Lakers or any other great dynasty, there should be no doubting his greatness.
"At the end of the day there are some people I'm not going to win over regardless of how many championships I win," Johnson said. "They're just not going to be a fan of mine.
"I'm fine with that."
Root for him, root against him, it doesn't matter. You can't ignore him anymore. You can't just wait for his run of supposed luck to end.
So far, this has been a very good Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. The best is yet to come. And right there in center is the sport's indomitable champion. Take him or leave him, he ain't going anywhere or apologizing for anything.
"Looking back on what Tiger Woods did when he was on the top of his career, that wasn't bad for golf," Johnson said. "[Richard] Petty, [Dale] Earnhardt [Sr.], those guys weren't bad for our sport.
I can't be bad for our sport."
No, not anymore.
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