Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Why finishing behind Jimmie Johnson is no longer fun

MARTINSVILLE -- Tony Stewart was walking through the garage area of Martinsville Speedway on Friday afternoon when he spotted a photographer trying to take his picture.

"Move it!" the NASCAR star shouted.

The photographer shuffled to the side and kept snapping.

Stewart broke off his route and approached the photographer.

"Get out of my way!" Stewart said. Then, under his breath, he added: "[Bleep] you."

I'm not writing this to try to shock you, because anybody who follows racing won't be shocked. Think of it more like a reminder. We've always known "Smoke" is a warm-and-fuzzy people person, NASCAR's version of Mr. Rogers. But the scene is worth mentioning because no more than five minutes earlier, Stewart was in the media center saying this about Jimmie Johnson:

"It's hard not to like Jimmie. He's personable. I get along with him great."

See, THIS is the problem.

If one of the most irascible figures in sports can't dislike a guy who's beating him -- and 41 other drivers -- week in and week out, what hope do we have?

The good news is that things might be changing, ever so slightly. The drivers still don't hate Jimmie Johnson, the man, but they're really starting to hate LOSING to Jimmie Johnson, the driver. After watching him win four straight Cup titles and get off to another dominant start this season, they're finally admitting that this guy is better than everybody else, and they don't like it.


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Finishing second to him no longer feels the same as finishing second to Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards or Matt Kenseth or any other leadfoot in the field. And that adds intrigue at a track where Johnson has won six of the past 11 races.

It's Jimmie Johnson against the world Sunday.

After Johnson won last week at Bristol -- his third victory in five races this year -- third-place finisher Kurt Busch couldn't stop talking about how disappointed he was. Not so much that he failed to win the race, but that he failed to beat the man who did.

"To lose to the 48 [stinks]," Busch said. "I'm sure everybody out here wanted anybody but the 48."

On Friday, Johnson was asked for his reaction to that sentiment.

"It made me smile," Johnson said. "Man, I've always wanted to be that guy that frustrated the field, frustrated the garage area."

He talked about watching the late Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon achieve that status in their careers, but the comparisons aren't exact. Both those other guys could agitate people even when they weren't winning.

Earnhardt was polarizing because of the aggressive, unapologetic manner in which he raced. Gordon was despised as the interloper from California before interlopers from California became the norm in this sport.

Johnson? He's nice. He races cleanly. He sends you a congratulatory text message when you win, according to Stewart. His public persona could best be described as vanilla wrapped in beige and dipped in blah sauce. He makes Tim Tebow look like a wild man.

Becoming a villain for success alone takes time, but it can happen. Look at golf. First the old guard marveled at the young talent named Tiger Woods. Then awe turned to respect. Eventually, as the major championships piled up, you started to hear the whispers of jealousy. Of resentment.

Of intimidation.

Woods embraced that "come and get me" mentality. Johnson is starting to, as well. He likes the idea that others are nearly as concerned about what he's doing as they are about their own programs.

"Just in [Busch's] comment alone, absolutely we're in his head," Johnson said. "Maybe not everyone's. Everybody deals with things differently.

"But if you go through and read any press remarks or interviews, if someone talks that they're not worried about us, it's already in there."

He smiled.

"Which is great," he said.

Stewart's right: It's still hard for other drivers to dislike Johnson.

But Johnson's making it a little easier, one victory at a time.

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