Johnson unplugged

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jimmie Johnson is a terrible sports fan.

"I am," he says, laughing.

The guy has three favorite NFL teams. Three! He roots for his old hometown team, the San Diego Chargers, his new hometown team, the Carolina Panthers, and, in case two weren't enough, he backs the Pittsburgh Steelers as well.

Johnson is the "Big Love" of sports fans.

As he hangs out Friday morning in his infield motor home at Daytona International Speedway, where his quest for an unprecedented fourth straight Sprint Cup championship will begin in Sunday's Daytona 500, Johnson doesn't just tell stories at his own expense, he laughs the hardest at them.

There's a reason he's considered one of sports' most down-to-earth superstars. Winning three consecutive championships, pocketing an estimated $23 million last year alone, hasn't changed a thing.

When confronted with his sporting fan sins, he can only shake his head in mock self-loathing. He knows that no self-respecting sports fan can have more than one favorite team. In fandom, it's one and done.

"My deal is, growing up in San Diego, I went to a couple games and that was it," Johnson explained. "But in support of my hometown, I certainly keep an eye on the Chargers."

When he moved to North Carolina for NASCAR, he got to know a number of Panthers players and coaches.

"Charlotte is where I live now, so, hey."

So, hey? Wait, it gets better.

"But then growing up, when we played Madden Football, I always had a lot of success playing the Steelers. So, hey, go gold and black."

Go gold and black?

The Steelers eliminated the Chargers in this year's AFC playoffs. You can't be a fan of both teams in a playoff game.

Johnson just laughs. He agrees he has no defense, except to explain that growing up he was so focused on motorsports that he didn't follow team sports. He's only really started paying attention in the last five years.

He understands real fans aren't going to buy any of that, though. They can be as brutal as they are loyal.

There was this one time at a race in upstate New York when Johnson and Jeff Gordon, his good friend and teammate, were driving around the infield on a golf cart. They spotted this tailgate with a giant "I hate Jeff Gordon" plywood display. One guy had painted it pink and attached pictures of Gordon's face on ballerinas and Teletubbies.

"Jeff's like, 'I'm going over there,' " Johnson said.

The two went over and talked to the guy. Gordon wasn't angry; he was amused. Everyone shared some stories, posed for some pictures and generally had a good time. The fan was polite as could be. It was all good. Then Gordon and Johnson got back on the golf cart and pulled away.

"Hey Gordon," the guy screamed, "you (expletive)."

But what was Johnson to do?

At this year's Super Bowl, his Steelers were there. Hanging out in a luxury box filled with Cardinal fans, including one of his best friends, singer Nick Lachey, who is a passionate Arizona Cardinals fan thanks to his friendship with back-up quarterback Matt Leinart, Johnson donned a Pittsburgh hat he'd purchased earlier in the week.

Lachey tried to get him to switch his allegiance, but Johnson held strong with the Steelers. Apparently you just can't break the pull of a Madden-inspired third fandom.

When Pittsburgh won with a last-minute touchdown, Johnson was happy.

"But this is why I'm a pushover and the reason I'm bad for sports and all of that," Johnson joked. "After the game, we saw Leinart. I'm standing there with my Steelers hat and Leinart walked in.

"So I took my damn hat off. Across the room you could see the man's face. This is everything he's worked for. He's only 35 seconds from the end of the game and it's taken away.

"Then Nick is talking to Matt and he points at me and says, 'That jackass over there was wearing a Steelers hat.' And they look at me. But my hat is off my head."

Leinart looked at Johnson in disbelief. What kind of "fan" worries about being polite when their team just won the Super Bowl?

"Just put the hat back on," Leinart said.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports national columnist

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