Johnson just latest object of fan ire


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR's palace is built on a foundation of fan loyalty. Other variables contributed, such as corporate sponsors with deep pockets and relatable drivers with rowdy personalities and, in more recent years, lucrative broadcast television deals. But, at its core, the sport is its fans.

That dynamic can get hokey. And it can be way overplayed -- and has been at times in the past. But with all the variables NASCAR fights today for relevance, it seems paramount to listen when fans speak.

The beauty is the passion. Most fans are fueled by it. Some are blinded by it -- some completely so. Unlike football or baseball fans, NASCAR fans see the same competition every weekend. Some are so loyal to one man that disdain develops for all others -- especially others who are wildly successful.

This is nothing new. We've seen it forever. With the passage of time comes the transition of eras, and those who hold on to what was detest what is.

Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough dominated, but weren't especially disliked by fans. It was a different era back then. Every man was an every man, that whole "relatable" thing.

When Darrell Waltrip showed up, he ran his mouth. A lot. Loudly. Then he went out and backed it up. Fans hated him. Competitors, too. Then Dale Earnhardt got traction, stopped wrecking and started winning. A string of titles followed. Fans weren't thrilled, especially Petty's. Suddenly, fans weren't so ticked at Waltrip.

Then, in the early '90s, Jeff Gordon arrived. That changed everything. He is quite possibly the most-hated driver in NASCAR history. For he -- Wonder Boy in rainbow clothing -- jeopardized the Intimidator's black magic act.

At that time, there was no way to know Earnhardt was done winning championships. But he was. When Gordon started winning, he kept winning, and hatred swelled. He was everything Earnhardt wasn't in the minds of the blue-collar ticket buyer.

Gordon is older now, with wisps of gray hair over his ears. The wins don't come as often, and suddenly he's not so hated anymore. But, goodness, Jimmie Johnson certainly is.

In today's NASCAR, Johnson is Public Enemy No. 1. He came out of nowhere to supplant the Gordon era. Some fans cannot stand his success; even go so far as to say it will trigger the downfall of NASCAR. They scream that the 48's dominance -- six championships and 48 wins in the past eight seasons -- is detrimental to the sport.

Eventually, when you hear it enough, you wonder whether there's any merit. I wonder how Petty's dominance -- and Waltrip's and Earnhardt's and Gordon's -- affected the industry in the broad scope compared with how Johnson's is received?

Before I studied that, I wondered first what Johnson thought of that particular criticism.

"It's a shortsighted comment," he said bluntly. "There are so many components and pieces to our sport. That is just a fan of another competitor with a narrow mindset or a shortsighted mindset.

"When you really break down the sport, and when you know the sport, there are a lot of areas that need work, and everybody is addressing that. One driver's dominance is not the reason why."

NASCAR president Mike Helton has been a full-time member of the NASCAR industry for 35 years. He has seen almost every dynasty.

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