SONOMA — Michael Waltrip, NASCAR team owner and driver for over 28 years, was going on and on about how uniquely great a driver Jimmie Johnson is. "He passes cars when others can't," Waltrip was saying, and no one has dominated the sport the way Johnson has now and, well, it was time to interrupt.
"You're talking about Babe Ruth here, aren't you?" I asked.
The greatest? The best of the best? Better than Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty? Waltrip nodded and, more importantly, he didn't say, "That was a stupid question." Once that would have been an stupid, outrageous and insulting proposition, that anyone could approach the legend and mystique of Petty and Earnhardt. Now? It would be stupid, outrageous and insulting not to ask that question.
Some NASCAR legends already have answered. At one time or another Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart all have answered in the affirmative. Yes, of course, the prudent, intelligent and mature approach would be to wait until Johnson is through racing. So he could be judged on his entire body of work. After all, history and perspective need time to simmer. I get it.
"You just can't rattle Jimmie," said Larry McReynolds, a legendary crew chief and now NASCAR television analyst. "He never looks back, always looks forward. He doesn't complain. He's won championships in the Gen-5 car, the Gen-4 car, on short tracks, superspeedways, road courses, slick tracks, dry tracks. He wins under all conditions with every type of car. Remember when they thought it was a big deal when Cale (Yarborough) won three (championships) in a row? Jimmie won five!"
You would think someone who has displayed this kind of dominance — of the 15 categories for NASCAR drivers in 2013, such as laps led, Johnson is first, second or third in 11 of them — Johnson's would be the first name on the marquee. As it is LeBron James and the Miami Heat, it should be Jimmie Johnson and NASCAR coming to Sonoma this weekend or anywhere else for that matter.
Instead, Johnson receives this disrespect: When Comcast this week promoted the Toyota-Save Mart 350, it mentioned Danica Patrick, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Stewart but no Jimmie Johnson! Jimmie Johnson is the 2013 points leader! Jimmie Johnson is the only five-time consecutive Cup title winner! Jimmie Johnson, who, Waltrip said, "is a nice guy on top of everything else."
And therein lies the rub. Drivers don't seek to spin him out. Drivers don't talk smack to him or about him. He is not a train wreck of uncertainty and mayhem like the Busch brothers. He is not a confrontational hot-head as Stewart can be. He is not hilarious like Bowyer. He doesn't do a back flip off his car when he wins like Carl Edwards does.
Johnson, however, is the guy next door who would watch your house and you could give him your keys while you're on vacation. He's the guy you could leave your kids with as you run to the store. He's the guy that if you dropped your wallet and he found it, Johnson would return it just as he found it. Without risk of overstatement, Jimmie Johnson is the son every father wants.