Johnson just latest object of fan ire

ByMarty Smith Via <a Href="" Title="espn" Class="espn_sc_byline">espn </a>
February 22, 2014, 3:43 PM

&#151; -- 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.

"It's very similar," Helton said. "We're always more respectful of dynasties in the future than we are when they're being built. If you look at all sports, it's that way. When dynasties are being built, we're more appreciative of them and kind to the individuals in the future than we are while it's happening. That's just human nature.

"To look back at someone who did something so extreme, you think, 'Oh my goodness, we saw that?'"

Waltrip has been there. He won three Cup championships and 40 races in five seasons from 1981 to 1985. He was "Jaws" back then, so-named a couple of years prior by Yarborough because Waltrip talked so much.

"Fans are very emotional," Waltrip said. "They have an emotional attachment to a driver or a car or a team or sponsor. And if you're beating their driver, they don't like you.

"It's not a matter of, 'Well that's OK, that's just him.' There's no mediocrity when it comes to how fans feel -- they love you or they hate you; they're on your side or they're against you."

Andy Petree was Earnhardt's crew chief in the heyday, when the black No. 3 was the standard on every conceivable level, competitively and socially. He won back-to-back championships with Earnhardt in 1993 and 1994.

"I remember we'd win races down here for [Daytona] Speedweeks, you could hardly get a human being to talk to you in the garage area," Petree said. "None of the other teams would even speak to you. They didn't really like us."

That's one thing that's odd about the way disgruntled fans feel about Johnson. It's opposite from how those inside the garage seem to think of him. If you poll his peers, you're hard-pressed to find anyone who says an ill word. Clint Bowyer once said, "the biggest thing that sucks about Jimmie Johnson is you want to hate him, but you can't."

"It seems like everybody likes Jimmie," Petree continued. "Jimmie is a very likable guy. I think he's more like -- I think the thing he said is he was 'motivating.' People watch what he's doing, and how he's doing it, and I think that that's driving him more than anything."

Maybe that's the fans' issue: He's too nice. They hate what they think he is.

"Dale Earnhardt got a lot of respect because everybody thought they could be Dale," said Chocolate Myers, a core member of Earnhardt's "Junkyard Dogs" pit crew for years and now a NASCAR analyst for SiriusXM Radio.

"Dale didn't have that education," Myers continued. "He was not a polished guy. He was a good ol' boy from Kannapolis [N.C.] that had a farm and sat on a bulldozer. Jimmie Johnson, people think he's polished. He's not. He's a cool dude. I really like this guy. He's as good a person as I've ever met. Fans don't like him, though, because he seems so polished."

Polished. That's a polarizing word in NASCAR. Those who spend the corporate dollars to make the wheel turn want it. Core fans hate it. Especially when polished is also seemingly unstoppable.

It's exactly how non-New York Yankees fans feel about the Yankees: clean-shaven faces and perfect pinstripes, always; no surface flaws.

"They don't look at him as an individual, like you get to know somebody," Helton said. "They look at him as an athlete that's beating people they traditionally pulled for. He's the next in the cycle, so to speak. And in some cases, if he beats their guy, then fans of everybody else automatically aren't on his side.

"Jimmie is almost single-handedly against the entire rest of the industry."

Despite their differences, Myers sees some Earnhardt in Johnson as a driver.

"I'm a Jimmie Johnson fan, and I'm a Jimmie Johnson fan because of what I see that guy do by himself," Myers said. "Ten years ago, whenever he started, he was the best at recovery I've ever seen -- having a problem, two laps down, written off. No! He doesn't get enough credit for what he does in that seat.

"Dale Earnhardt was the same way. We're in a deal where anybody here on a perfect day, with a perfect car, can win that race. There's few people that, on that same day, with a 10th-place car, can win that race. Dale Earnhardt could do it. Jimmie Johnson can make that happen."

The No. 48 team pays little mind to negative fan response, an approach that stems from the top, crew chief Chad Knaus. Knaus, a former crewmember for Jeff Gordon's No. 24 team, has lived it before.

"It actually sounds like it's following me," he laughed. "I guess I am a little immune to it. It's very similar to what we did with [Gordon's] car back in the day. You just learn to block it."

Knaus noted one major key in the Team 48 dynasty: the willingness to re-create itself in the quest to stay self-motivated. Difficult personnel decisions are made almost annually. Be the very best or be replaced. That, too, comes from Knaus. Fueling the hate with more trophies is somewhat of a badge of honor for the team.

"Whatever the fans think of you, you can't run from it," Waltrip said. "You have to figure out how to embrace it. I had no problem laughing at myself or making fun of myself. I used people not liking me as motivation. It made me want to be better. I think Jimmie may be in that same boat. Internally, he's probably using that as self-motivation.

"We're all driven for something -- fame or fortune or success. But sometimes you need that motivator. I always think about what Kyle Busch told me -- haters are motivators. And in a subtle way -- because Jimmie is just that way -- I bet he uses how people feel about him as self-motivation."

Johnson's self-motivation cannot be questioned. His training regimen is well documented. He turned himself into a marathoner and triathlete to find an edge, as mental as it is physical -- this after he had already won five Cup championships.

"He ran a half marathon, 1:28? I mean, that's pretty impressive, what an athlete," Petree said. "This just tells me what kind of commitment he has to excellence, and I think a lot of the other drivers look at him as an example of what it takes to try to beat him. He's really something."

It's just another reason to hate the guy.

"I give that guy a lot of respect because he's able to reach down there and get a handful of something and get the job done," Myers said. "He deserves more respect than he gets. The people inside this business, they either respect him or fear him. He's that good."

So is his dominance bad for NASCAR?

"I don't think it's bad at all," Waltrip said. "In any sport, you have to have somebody or something to shoot for. Mediocrity kills every sport. Officials and sanctioning bodies want everybody to have a chance to win. That's not competition -- that's controlling competition. His dominance makes everybody realize, 'Why can't I do it?'

"It's got to have a huge effect on his teammates, when they know every single thing he has, and he still succeeds in spite of them knowing all that. Every sport needs a dominant team. Without that, you end up with a bunch of also-rans."

Knaus said he doesn't consider the long-term impact of the Jimmie Johnson era. He said someday he and Johnson will hash all of that out on the back porch with a cold beer. For now, it's about adding to the accolades.

"I don't know what the impact is; I don't know if it is good or bad," Knaus said. "I have seen with the 24 car and Jeff Gordon, and what he did, he was really, really good. And then as he got further along in his career, those people that didn't like him, all of a sudden started to like him -- a lot.

"I saw that happen with Dale Earnhardt. I saw that happen with Rusty Wallace. I saw that happen with Darrell Waltrip. I assume that is going to happen for Jimmie. But I think there's a lot more people that like Jimmie now than when they didn't like Jeff. It's just the ebb and flow of it. It's just how it works."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events