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Petty, Earnhardt are losing ground as reigning king remains humble


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.

Phooey.

"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.

"That's the one thing fans have not embraced a lot about him," McReynolds said. "People want their drivers to show emotion. Jimmie doesn't. He doesn't let a lot of emotion control him. It is one of the things that has made him a great driver."

Johnson shrugged when the topic came up. He has heard it so often that he could take it as a character flaw — as odd as that reads.

"When I was coming up," Johnson said, "it was one of the things sponsors and owners liked about me. I controlled myself. I was respectful. I listened to people."

So if a rich guy wanted to dump millions on a driver, Johnson wouldn't embarrass that investment.

"Now I find it ironic that what I did getting into the sport now disappoints people," Johnson said. "I can't please everybody. I don't try. Now I don't care anymore."

Johnson is a victim of The Big Splash. That's what Muhammad Ali started all those years ago. The Big Splash. Let people know you by what you say, what you do. Controversy is good. Outrageous is better. How else to explain it was big news when the totally irrelevant and unnecessary Dennis Rodman went to North Korea? This is the era in sports in which sizzle gathers more attention than substance.

What happened to Johnson when he was 10 years old should carry more weight and encourage more publicity than footballer Pacman Jones throwing $100 bills at strippers. It won't, but it should.

Johnson was 10 riding motocross in his hometown of El Cajon when he lost control of his bike. Johnson tried to upright it. It was bigger than he was. Frustrated, Johnson kicked the bike.

"My dad reprimanded me," Johnson said. "He kept me out of the next race. It wasn't the bike's fault I couldn't get it up. I had to learn to control my emotions."

The resulting maturity translated well for Johnson. He had lived in a trailer park until he was 8. His father worked for a tire company, blue collar all the way. He advanced by learning how to work with people, not against them. Now 37, Johnson appears too smooth for NASCAR fans, as if everything was handed to him.

"You might think of that if you didn't get to know me," Johnson said. "Those people who think I've had it easy, they don't know that in 1998 I ran the whole ASA season without a sponsor. It was a white Camaro with a black stripe on the side."

Fifteen years ago he wasn't the great Jimmie Johnson. Now that he is, and because Earnhardt lovers or Petty lovers don't want competition, Johnson is dominant because he has a great crew chief, Chad Knaus, and the wealthiest owner in the sport, Rick Hendrick. That might make sense if it wasn't for the following fact.

In 2010, when he earned his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship, Johnson won six races. The other three drivers in Hendricks' garage — Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin — didn't win one race. Yet, all four drivers had access to the same information.

When Petty won his 200 races he had Maurice Petty build his engines and Dale Inman as his crew chief. All three men are in NASCAR's Hall of Fame. Richard didn't have Tweedledum and Tweedledee in his garage.

When Petty won the title in 1974, only four other drivers won that year. In 2010, when Johnson won his fifth title, 13 other drivers finished first.

While McReynolds wasn't ready to claim Johnson as the greatest ever, he did mention Earnhardt would have to race differently today. McReynolds was Earnhardt's crew chief for two years.

"Dale manhandled everything," McReynolds said. "He used to tell me, 'Get me close and I'll do the rest'. Today that wouldn't work because there's so much competition out there now. As many as 12-to-15 guys can win every week."

The best bar conversation would start with this: Petty, Earnhardt and Johnson start the race with the same exact car, same exact equipment and same exact crew skill level. Who wins? There's at least four beers in that answer. Johnson, of course, appreciated to be included in that conversation. And he will take it one step further.

"I've talked with Kyle Petty and asked him what it was like for Richard," Johnson said. "Kyle said, 'You wouldn't believe.' Richard had FBI around him, security around the clock. He had threats against him. I just know I'm not the first one to go through this."

And he won't be the last. Just as once no one thought there could be another Petty, there was Earnhardt. And then there couldn't be anyone as great as Earnhardt. And there is. His name is Jimmie Johnson. Someone, some day, will be the next Jimmie Johnson. Some say he's already here. His name is Kyle Larson. Larson is 20. He's running Nationwide and some trucks. They say Larson can run the wheels off anything.

However, it happens Larson should know this. In NASCAR, life at the very top is never lonely. It attracts a crowd and they don't all love you. Even if you don't give them a reason. Just ask Jimmie Johnson.