CONCORD, N.C. – The reactions were mixed but loud. Some cheers, for sure, but mostly a cascade of boos that marked the calling of their names during driver introductions.
No matter how much they win, no matter how pronounced their talents, no matter how pleasant their personalities, there will always be distance between Gordon and Johnson and some of the rank-and-file fans that fill these massive grandstands across the region.
And while I'm certainly not from that demographic, in fan spirituality, I'm right with them.
Sometimes we just want some grit with our grits, some roughneck success to remind us of the sport's bloodlines back to bootlegging and hell-raising. Part of the fun of NASCAR is the black hats, the outlaws, the kind of people you wouldn't let hang around your sister.
Instead, here with five races left in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, we are left with a quandary. We're in for a heck of a run to the title but we're wondering just who we are supposed to be pulling for.
Gordon, after another victory here Saturday, leads. His friend and protégé Johnson is in second, 68 points back. Only Clint Bowyer has any legitimate chance to catch them.
The Chase is now so clean-cut, Congressional workers don't need immunizations to attend a race. This is a battle the crew on "The View" might take a rooting interest in (we already know the allegiance of Regis and Kelly).
No one can deny Gordon and Johnson have dominated the season, that they deserve their spots on top. "Both those guys have been on their game," Bowyer said.
But for a lot of old NASCAR fans, watching Gordon and Johnson duel for the Cup is like trying to pick a side in a fight between the tax man and the meter maid. Or rooting for a team in a Duke intrasquad scrimmage.
Monster talents. Respectable guys. Good people. They'd probably make perfect neighbors. You can't say anything negative about either of them except, is this what people tune in for every week?
In terms of stirring the passion, do you want to back the polite, polished, politically correct one or the polite, polished, politically correct one?
But that's where we're at. This year in NASCAR, the good guys beat on the bad boys like they were a rumpled fender.
Where Gordon and Johnson have whipped around with relative ease, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been shut out, the Busch brothers are all but eliminated and after a seventh-place run Saturday, Tony Stewart is virtually finished.
NASCAR hasn't had a champion from its traditional Southeast base since 1999 (Hickory, N.C.'s Dale Jarrett) but this is more than geography. The Busch boys and Stewart aren't from down here either, but they are always getting into scraps and feuds (often with each other), they carry around take-no-crap attitudes and proudly chug beers in the winner's circle.
Gordon and Johnson? Not so much.
Gordon's postrace explanation for getting into it with Earnhardt on lap 83 – "when I bumped him, I was like, 'oops.' " – may have been accurate and reasonable and understandable but, ah, what fun is that?
Seriously, did he say, "oops?"
Gordon, 36, was the original interloper, despised by many old-school fans for his smooth style, non-traditional popularity and scrubbed marketing persona. Fair or not, he became the poster boy for the sport's dramatic change and coast-to-coast growth that still bothers some.
In a sport that used to have a cigarette company as a title sponsor, Gordon counts Nicorette as an endorser.
But if anything, Gordon has gained acceptance because of his four Cup titles and 81 race victories. Even the most fervent Gordon hater has to respect his incredible ability.
But as that respect has grown, in came Johnson, 32, to take his old place. This is the new Gordon, his 2006 title cementing his ability, his admitted plan to follow Gordon's off-track moves forever tying them together. They are not just teammates on Hendrick Motorsports, but also friends, inseparable to many.
"We have similar personalities," Gordon said a couple weeks back.
And now they have the full attention of the sport for the final five races. Sitting 78 points back, Bowyer is the only one with a prayer and even he admits that passing the two men isn't likely.
In reality, if Gordon doesn't win, Johnson will.
"The good news/bad news is they're racing each other for the championship," team owner Rick Hendrick said.
A lot of fans are trying to figure out the good news part.