Respected, celebrated Jimmie Johnson proves nice guys finish first

Zack Albert

CONCORD, N.C. — What more do you want from Jimmie Johnson?

One of the best to ever wheel a stock car announced his retirement this week, and the tributes justifiably flowed in. Respect. Excellence. Champion. Words with significant weight all applied. When Johnson becomes eligible two years after his retirement, the NASCAR Hall of Fame will fling its doors open wide and say, “right this way.”

Johnson said in Thursday’s farewell address that he tried to be “one of the good guys” on the track over the course of his celebrated career. That hackneyed saying about where nice guys typically finish? Johnson turned that on its head.

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So when Johnson steps away from full-time competition after one final Cup Series campaign in 2020, the legacy he leaves may be more fundamental than the remarkable seven championships, the 83 victories and all the other statistical accolades.

To hear those closest to him tell it, the true measure may be as simple as just being one good dude. What more do you want than that?

“I think when you can do it and do it right and win like he did and set records that probably no one will ever break, and nobody can say anything bad about Jimmie Johnson,” said team owner Rick Hendrick, who flanked Johnson during Thursday’s (fittingly) 48-minute presentation. “On the track, off the track; I mean I think sometimes people didn‘t respect him because he was too perfect. You know, that he didn‘t have that big edge. But, he could win and do it like that and be a gentleman and race people clean and never had any problems.”

Ah, that big edge. When the names of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt arose Thursday, the natural reflex was to wonder how Johnson’s legacy stacked up against the sport’s only other seven-time champions. Comparing statistics across different eras is still a dangerous proposition. Personality comparisons, though, remain enticing.

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Petty was stock-car racing royalty who achieved the sport’s most untouchable record — 200 wins — and embraced fans with a signature smile alongside his trademark shades and cowboy hat. Earnhardt made his mark with an unwavering swagger and a menacing black No. 3 car that placed the fear of The Almighty into his rivals. Johnson’s defining trait was a no-nonsense excellence that meshed with the bonds he forged with his peers.

For a handful of seasons, Johnson tried to channel Earnhardt by driving a predominantly black car. As for the Intimidator persona, despite Chad Knaus’ best efforts, it never quite took.

“He’s so frustrating to me. I tried to turn him into a dirty driver at times,” said Knaus, his crew chief of 17 years and still a close personal friend. “I tried to make him be more aggressive at times. I tried to do all this stuff, and shame on me for doing that because just like what Mr. Hendrick said, he’s going to leave this sport with everybody knowing that he did it the right way. He didn’t shove people around. He couldn’t crash somebody if he had to. He just doesn’t have the capability. It’s not in his DNA.”

Another piece of the legacy is more subjective. How many majors would other golfers have won had they not played during the peak of Tiger Woods’ career? The same logic applies to other drivers in NASCAR’s era of Johnson, who monopolized the back half of the 2000s with a five-year sweep of championships.

“And then there’s that,” says Jeff Gordon, who can laugh about it now but knows this too well. The four-time champion claimed his last premier-series title in 2001, the last year before Johnson’s rookie campaign. “He was the one that was in the way of making it happen, and he stopped it from happening for several others,” said Gordon, who helped bring Johnson into the sport’s big leagues as a part-owner with Hendrick when the No. 48 team launched.

The overlap of Gordon’s and Johnson’s careers was marked by hard-nosed competition between them and wins by the bushel for Hendrick Motorsports. But it was also defined by their lasting friendship and a determination that pushed both of them to new plateaus.

“I got to compete against him in basically the same equipment, right, and I can tell you that I’ve never raced with anybody better, and that’s why I respect him so much,” Gordon said. “I’ll just second what a lot of people have been saying is the way he’s done it, to do it with class, to do it with style, to do it his own way, I appreciate that. I’ll only add, one other thing is to me, one legacy that he will leave at least on drivers like myself is, when I came into the sport, I looked up to other drivers and either tried to emulate them or tried to beat them and hopefully forced them to step their game up. I hope that I did that for others, but I can tell you 100% that Jimmie did that for me and others, I’m sure.

“I thought that I had things figured out and then Jimmie Johnson comes along and starts beating me on a regular basis, and it forced me to look within myself and go OK, what am I not doing, what more can I do, what can I do with setups and cars and team, fitness. He elevated up my game and I think that, to me, is when a driver’s performance on track leaves a legacy behind to other performers or other athletes on the track.”

If there are knocks on the careers of NASCAR’s three seven-time champions, they are minor in contrast to their overall achievements. Petty took flak for lingering beyond his racing prime, rounding out his career with eight winless seasons. Earnhardt’s swashbuckling ways endeared him to his fans but were a polarizing source of angst for his rivals.

The knock on Johnson? Being “too perfect,” as Hendrick said.

It’s too easy a leap to conflate Johnson’s consistent, professional approach with being vanilla, another descriptor that came up during Thursday’s questions and answers. But that label runs cross-current with the tales of his golf-cart surfing shenanigans of his youth and his choice of parting gift for the assembled media: a miniature bottle of tequila.

Perfection shouldn’t be a perceived flaw, and other descriptions that Hendrick used to describe Johnson’s code of conduct should resonate more. Role model. True champion. Family. What the perfect driver would be.

That Johnson did it all while keeping on-track friction and off-track drama at a minimum is accomplishment in itself.

“So what he’s done, the way he’s done it, the race he’s won, the people that he’s touched — you can look at his accomplishments and say that’s what’s going to be long-standing,” Knaus said. “But I can tell you from what he’s done for me personally and what he’s done for a lot of our friends and family, that’s what his legacy is. It’s just being a damn good guy and a hell of a race car driver.”

What more do you want than that?

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