Parked on Pocono Raceway's pit road, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch were in the midst of a heated but civil discussion about their run-in in the closing laps of last weekend's Good Sam 500. Then, according to Johnson, as the crowd descended on the two and Johnson started walking away, Busch's demeanor changed.
"He just started running his mouth," Johnson explained. "We know there's been plenty of history over the years, and there's just things that just boil to a head. When I hopped out of the car and started talking to him, he had one level of interaction with me while he was sitting in his race car. When he got out of the car, neither one of us were happy but we were talking.
"Then the crowd started to build and his bravery started to build. I walk away and he got awfully tough. That part frustrates me, and that's where you saw me engage like I did. If you're going to say something, say it to the man's face, eye to eye, when he's there. Don't wait until he walks away."
Agree with Johnson or not, the restrictor plate is off the so-called Mr. Vanilla.
For most of his career, the biggest criticism of Johnson has been his buttoned-up personality. "Show some!" fans screamed. But he didn't feel he could.
Early in his career, Johnson figured out his best shot at landing a job wasn't catering to fans but to CEOs. They're the ones who pay the salaries, and if he wanted them to pay his, he’d better show they could trust him. So that's what he did – he became the perfect pitchman. Clean racing. Clean image. Clean shaven. Controversy-free.
This wasn't completely counter to who he really is. Johnson is a naturally nice, respectful guy who wants to live “the right way.” But in playing the perfect pitchman, he didn't show his edgier side – the one that likes to drink beer, surf on top of golf carts and, when pushed, pushes back.
We've heard about this uninhibited side but have rarely seen it publicly – at least not until this season.
Whether sick of hearing the "vanilla" talk, bolstered by the job security of winning five straight championships or told by P.R. types it's OK to be exactly who he is, Johnson has become fully unfiltered.
When Junior Nation attacked him for "abandoning" Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona in July, Johnson lashed back with a tweet: "I didn't leave Jr hanging, you people are crazy." He's called out his struggling pit crew in public, said Juan Pablo Montoya is "out of mulligans" and now is mincing no words when it comes to his feelings about Kurt Busch.
"If you look at, over the years, what his mouth has done for him," Johnson began, "it got my biggest fan, Jimmy Spencer, to punch him in the face. It's led to issues with the NASCAR officials on pit road. I think we all tune in weekly and wonder what he's gonna say to his crew guys. You look at what he said [over the team radio] to Roger Penske, his car owner … and, at the end of the day, I'm not going to let him run his mouth at me. That's kind of how it is."
In nine years of playing it straight, staying out of the fray, Johnson has had nothing but success – finishing fifth or better every year. During his five-year championship reign, he's won at least five races every season.
Through 21 races in 2011, he has just one win – the lowest win total at this point in the season of his entire career.
While the unrestricted Jimmie Johnson provides much more fodder for the headlines, the question is if it will end up costing him on the track – particularly if this grudge plays out in the Chase.
"In theory, yeah, you don't want enemies, issues, anything lingering, but you just don't have that luxury at times," Johnson said. "It's just not how it works out.
"If it turns into wrecking cars, man, that's the worst situation you can have going into the Chase," he continued. "Because as soon as that driver, if he's a Chase driver or if not, he holds all the power and all the cards. And, at some point, he can just dump ya."
This is the situation Johnson has put himself in by not being so vanilla. How ironic it would be if this is ultimately what brings an end to his reign.