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Johnson intimidates by not being intimidated

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
Johnson intimidates by not being intimidated
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Dale Earnhardt Sr. had an aura that intimidated his competition and lent him his nickname

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Forever and always there will be just one "Intimidator" in NASCAR.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. had that thick mustache, the reflector sun glasses and (at times) a menacing black car. He had no problem pushing people out of the way, into walls and then later standing his ground when called on it.

If you wanted to "discuss" with Earnhardt his style of racing, well, you better roll up your sleeves because he wasn't above dragging you through the weeds. As the years went by, fewer and fewer drivers bothered. This was fine with Earnhardt; he had beer to drink.

Jimmie Johnson says he hasn't been in a fist fight since high school back in Southern California. He's had only one real altercation in racing, when as a 19-year old in an off-road event his right-front wheel crashed through the window net of the car of Roger Mears (father of fellow Sprint Cup driver Casey Mears).

Roger Mears, 37 at the time, wound up with a broken left shoulder and, post race, a clinched right hand around Johnson's neck.

"Roger lifted me off the ground and reminded me that he's been doing this a long time and I needed to be more cautious and careful," Johnson said before laughing.

Johnson can afford to laugh – he and Roger are friends now. He wasn't all that scared then, though. He never really cared. He just kept driving.

Johnson has become the most unlikely intimidator NASCAR has ever seen. Nothing like Earnhardt, he's found a way to completely psych out the rest of the field anyway.

Johnson is barreling toward his record fourth consecutive Sprint Cup championship, and all over the tiny infield of the paper clip loop of Martinsville Speedway the other 42 NASCAR drivers can't figure out a dang thing to do about it.

Having Johnson in their rearview mirror may not instill fear like the site of Big E, but there's fear nonetheless, mostly because they can't stop him. Certainly not at Martinsville, where Johnson has won five of the last six races, and not in the wild card Chase, which Johnson has won each of the last three years.

They can't figure out the secret to his success. Instead, they shake their heads, trying not to sound like they've completely given up.

"I'm not going to wreck [Johnson] and I don't think anyone else is," Carl Edwards said of channeling some Earnhardt Sr. "The way those guys run, you'd spin him out, he'd back into a wall, they'd fix the car up and he'd win anyway."

If that's not intimidation, nothing is.

"I think it's harder to rattle his cage than most guys," said Brian Vickers. "He has a very calm demeanor. It's just his personality."

Johnson is undeniably in everyone's head. The number of drivers who think his fourth title is a forgone conclusion seems to grow by the minute.

Tony Stewart started citing the math of Johnson's 90-point lead and he was already reminding everyone that this would be a successful season even without a title. Greg Biffle conceded that he didn't know if it was possible for anyone to beat Johnson. Mark Martin could only promise a hopeful, "I'm going to race him for it."

Everyone mentioned that, hey, maybe he gets caught up in the predictable big wreck next weekend at Talladega. That's the mood around here – maybe he'll get wrecked. It's the Hail Mary throw of stock car racing. It's all they've got.

It would be a lot easier to explain Johnson's success if he was just tougher than they were, like Earnhardt was. Johnson said he doesn't care what the rest of the field thinks, although he does find humor when he hears about the depth of their strategizing about his strategizing.

"I see stuff on TV and I laugh," he said. "Just watching people speculate and coming up with angles that I don't even think about. I like that."

Johnson may be impossible to rattle, which is why when asked all day how to rattle him, no other driver had a good answer. All they could come up with is putting together a better car and driving the wheels off it like he does.

Good luck with that.

It's quite apparent, now, that NASCAR doesn't have an Intimidator like Earnhardt to potentially knock Johnson out of his comfort zone – if that's even possible. There are pretenders, but those are easy to see through.

"With Senior, it worked because it was real. He really didn’t care," said Johnson, who never drove against Earnhardt Sr. but has heard all the stories. "Those quiet guys are always the crazy ones. Once they finally hit that spot, you never knew what [will] happen.

"There [have] always been guys along the way that have tried to be like Senior, tried to run people off and act that way. When you're trying to be something you're not, though, it just doesn't come through the same way."

Johnson is, if nothing else, completely real. He's comfortable in his own skin, even knowing that he isn't the kind of crowd favorite you'd expect out of a dominating champion.

He could play the part and have more fans, but there's no way he'd be the same driver. Besides, crew chief Chad Knaus is the emotional part of the team.

Johnson is soft spoken, extremely precise and outrageously competitive. All he wants to do it win. Nothing – and nobody – can get in the way.

Physical toughness may be easy to see and appreciate, but mental toughness has always been more important.

So, in a bizarre twist, not reacting to the other driver's intimidating antics has, in turn, completely intimidated them. Johnson's intimidation comes from the fact he can't be intimidated. Perhaps even by the original Intimidator.

"It's a different time and a different age, but had he been here with me when I was racing Dale Earnhardt in the early 90s for the title, I think Jimmie would have held his ground," Mark Martin said. "He would have held his ground better than I hold mine."

The rub that Johnson wins on technical superiority, rather than old-school driving skill, fits with some romantic image of a driver. But if that's true, then it's also fair to flip the question around. What's wrong with preparation, with commitment, with innovation, with honoring the sport through total focus?

"Earnhardt did a lot of what he did with his hands and he wasn't above playing head games," Martin said. "Jimmie is good because of technical, because he works physically and understands the car and writes things down.

"Dale Earnhardt didn't take notes after every race," Martin continued. "Dale just piled in that thing and wheeled it like an animal. Jimmie understands that the way he can win is to make his car better than everyone's and he focuses on that."

Two different champions, the same result – a field of competitors that are full of doubt and just about out of hope. In the end, intimidation is a result, not an action.