October 15, 2010
One of the most persistent theories for why NASCAR's ratings and attendance are down is the theory that the reigning four-time champion, Jimmie Johnson, is a dull corporate drone, as exciting as a spreadsheet and as edgy as an office break room birthday party. As with most NASCAR conspiracy theories, it only works if you don't think too hard about it.
The word most often associated with Johnson, aside from "champion" and "Vader," is "vanilla," and Johnson himself doesn't much care for it, thank you very much.
"I sure as hell know I'm not vanilla," he said at a Thursday press conference. "I think it takes anybody some time to get comfortable in their shoes and their sport, and with where I went from being like a C-level driver in Nationwide ... to drive for Hendrick Motorsports, to having success early, at the end of the day I want to be a professional and do my job. And some people formed opinions then, and it's unfortunate that if it still lingers around, because I think I've done plenty to show that I'm far from vanilla."
Perception is reality, though, and "vanilla" has stuck with Johnson. He gets that, but what he doesn't care for is the idea that he's responsible for NASCAR's problems because he's been winning so damn much.
"It's just unfair to put [the downturn] on a driver's success," Johnson said. "When you look at the economy and the challenges that it's posed on people, there's a lot of conversations about the prices being too high for hotel rooms. The tracks have worked very hard to get their price point down, and that hasn't really moved the needle all that much. We have an amazing television package, and people aren't tuning in to watch. We don't know why. And it's not just our sport, it's all sports and it's all television. It's not me, and I know that."
He's right, sort of. You need to flip the script, as the kids used to say. It's not so much that Johnson is winning as it is that so many other drivers, as a result, are losing. If we had four different champions over the last four years -- and, more specifically, if a certain teammate of Johnson's had won at least one of those championships -- you can bet that there'd be a lot more rooting interest in the sport right now.
But to blame Johnson for that, and not your own favorite driver, is like blaming the sun for burning you when you forgot your sunscreen. He does what he does, and it's not his responsibility to slow down and let the field catch up.
The 48's march to a fifth championship might be an inevitability; more on that in a later Friday post. But NASCAR drivers are supposed to win races, right?
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