Johnson is Tiger good, not Tiger popular

Dan Wetzel

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Jimmie Johnson was crushing the competition all afternoon, lap after lap as he pushed toward the historic moment he would all but assure a third consecutive Cup championship.

It's a stretch of domination not seen in three decades and he's doing it with breathtaking ease. Once again he enters next weekend's finale with a nearly insurmountable lead of 141 points.

Johnson is so good right now that the guy who finished second to him in Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway could only shrug and bow.

"It's really a privilege to finish second to him," Kurt Busch offered.

What Johnson's doing now is the NASCAR equivalent of Tiger Woods sprinting toward a grand slam, Lance Armstrong gliding down the Champs-Elysees for a seventh consecutive year or the New England Patriots streaking to 18-0.

Yet, with it still a real possibility that Johnson would secure the championship in this very race, ABC determined it was better to cut away from the conclusion in favor of "America's Funniest Videos." In the Eastern and Central time zones, the race was moved to ESPN2.

Rather than a potential magical moment, viewers were treated to a very special episode of AFV: "Guys getting snagged by fish hooks vs. animals with itchy butts."

No joke. They showed some elephant scratching away. And one guy tried to cast a line and got it caught on his hat. Then there was a dog looking for relief. And so on. A bit of once a generation greatness had nothing on some hick too drunk to fish.

"To go to America's Funniest Videos," Johnson grimaced, "that one hurts."

Johnson tried to spin it into a positive. He'd first heard the finish wasn't shown anywhere. That the thought of a total blackout even crossed his mind tells you the bizarre state of this sport.

NASCAR's in a lot of trouble and not even a champion of epic proportions can help it.

Johnson's brilliance should be enough to lift the entire circuit's relevancy, exciting not just core fans who've waited since Cale Yarborough in the late 1970s for such a champion but drawing in casual viewers who appreciate greatness and history.

Instead, neither has happened.

Now NASCAR faces a nervous offseason with rumored team closings, sponsor troubles and the possible bankruptcies at lifeblood companies General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

"We hope they will [be back]," NASCAR CEO Brian France said Sunday of Detroit's Big Three. "We don't know. We hope they will. And that's all we can do."

No matter how much Johnson wins, not enough people seem to care. For his sport, he's proven to be more Roger Federer than Tiger Woods – incapable of moving the needle.

Johnson's charisma deficit is difficult to figure. He's pleasant and polite, a good story and a willing quote. He drives aggressively and routinely displays a genius behind the wheel that leaves even competitors awed.

Away from the track he's known as the kind of free spirit NASCAR's always had. Sunday he promised to "get crazy tonight, for sure" with his friends who arrived from California to celebrate.

While he certainly has many fans, it's not nearly as many as you'd expect.

The core issue is the corporate personality he projects. It's so polished and vanilla many seem incapable of caring much about him. At this point, wide-spread hate would be preferred. At least it would be something.

His pre-race introduction elicited a mixed verdict of cheers and boos. More telling – and troubling for NASCAR – was that neither reaction was overwhelming.

Plenty of fans greeted him on what could've been his big day with indifference. They neither booed nor cheered. They saved bigger outbursts for a half dozen other drivers, including Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and, of course, Dale Earnhardt Jr., none of whom can hold a carburetor to Johnson on the track.

For NASCAR, this is a brutal conundrum. If just about any of the other top drivers were making a mockery of the competition, turning into their Tiger, it stands to reason droves of fans would be tuning in each week.

If it were Earnhardt Jr., there's no question ABC would have shelved the itchy animals.

The sport surged in popularity in the 1990s in part due to the battle between Dale Earnhardt Sr., the old Intimidator, and Gordon, the young super talent. They played their roles well and everyone had an opinion. Everyone wanted to see what would happen next. Gordon was lustily booed, but at least they knew he was there.

"Jimmie is a super nice guy and he's very talented and he's won a lot of races," Gordon said. "The difference is that most of the boos that came my way came from the rivalry between the Earnhardt fans and my fans. That's what separated us."

Now Johnson hardly has any competition.

"There has not been one distinctive rivalry," Gordon offered.

Woods has been able to overcome this. Johnson hasn't.

What's going on each Sunday around the racetrack is a legend in the making, sheer and undeniable domination. It's just the kind of star-turning performance that should recession-proof an organization.

Instead the circuit limps to its conclusion next week. Once again, everyone knows who's going to win the championship; no one knows what's going to happen after that let alone how to get new fans or old broadcast partners to care.