Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for 2013′s Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 16. Here’s one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
Get this out of the way at the start: Jimmie Johnson is no Dale Earnhardt. He doesn’t inspire fear among rival drivers when he walks down pit road, as The Intimidator once did, and he never slams into the rear bumper of another car at 180 mph to punt it into the wall like the Man in Black loved to do. Johnson is the
-Earnhardt: always smiling (instead of glaring), always courteous (instead of mischievous and ruthlessly tough), and always making everything in life and on the track look so gosh-darn easy (instead of clawing and fighting for scraps like a certain ninth-grade dropout once did).
Earnhardt, the most popular NASCAR driver of all time, perfectly fits our perception of the archetypical stock car driver: a badass who grew up with dirt under his fingernails and fearlessness in his heart while drag racing through the backwoods of North Carolina. Johnson is different. He’s from Southern California, is telegenic, has a model for a wife, and speaks like he has an advanced college degree. In fact, nothing was handed to Johnson — he grew up in a trailer park and left home after high school to race with only a few dollars in his wallet. Still, he has never resonated with hardcore fans in the way Earnhardt that did. I’m still not sure why, but the diehards just don’t see a part of themselves in Johnson. Perhaps that’s one reason why NASCAR’s TV ratings are down roughly 25 percent from 2005, the year in which Johnson won his first Cup championship.
But it’s time to appreciate Johnson, 38, for what he is: the greatest stock car driver in history. And it’s time — long, long overdue — to award him SI’s Sportsman of the Year.
On Nov. 17 at Homestead-Miami Speedway Johnson won his sixth title, beating Matt Kenseth by 19 points in the final standings. Earnhardt and Richard Petty share the record of seven career championships, and there’s not one person in the garage who doesn’t believe Johnson will pass those legends — perhaps as soon 2015. Petty himself said he thought Johnson could win as many 10. As it stands, Johnson’s six titles in eight years put him on a par with two other athletic dynasties: the Chicago Bulls of the ’90s (who captured six NBA titles between 1991 and ’98) and the New York Yankees of the ’30s and ’40s (who won six MLB championships between 1936 and ’43).
You could argue that Johnson’s performance in NASCAR over the last decade has been the most impressive of anyone in any sport this millennium. Consider:
*Since the Chase era began in 2004, Johnson has won nearly a quarter of all the playoff races (24 out of 100).
*Johnson, the only driver to have qualified for the Chase in every season, is also the only driver in history to win multiple races in each of his first 12 years on the circuit.
*Johnson’s 66 career wins are 10 short of Earnhardt’s career total, and Johnson has started 241 fewer races than Earnhardt. It’s taken Johnson 12 seasons to win six championships; it took Earnhardt 16 seasons to win seven. Here it should be noted that drivers don’t typically suffer an erosion of hand-eye-foot coordination and fall out of their racing prime until age 42 or 43, which means Johnson should be operating at the height of his powers for at least another five seasons.
After failing to win titles in 2011 and ’12, Johnson got serious about fitness. He likes to joke that in his younger days — even as recently as a few years ago — the only time he saw 5 a.m. was when he was stumbling home from the bar, but now he’s up at that hour several times a week running, biking and swimming. He’ll rip off a 20-mile run at just under a 7:30 a mile pace without much of a struggle. He plans to run the Boston Marathon next year. Small wonder that at the end of races this season Johnson was as physically and mentally strong as anyone on the track.
Off the track, Johnson has been as giving as anyone in the sport — a key element to winning the SI Sportsman award. After tornadoes ravaged Oklahoma this spring, Johnson and his wife, Chandra, a native of the Sooner State, flew to the most devastated areas. Johnson filmed a public service announcement, handed out supplies and donated over $1.1 million to the relief efforts. And since 2006, the Jimmie Johnson Foundation has awarded more than $6.1 million to different charities assisting children and families in need. If that isn’t a record for a NASCAR driver over the last seven years, it must be close.
There’s also this: I’ve been around Johnson for a decade now, and I can report that he’s a plain good guy. I’ve never seen him be short or curt with a fan, never witnessed him lose his cool once. Years ago I misspelled his wife’s name in a story in the magazine. A few weeks after the piece was published I bumped into Johnson and Chandra — and that’s C-H-A-N-D-R-A — at a cocktail party in Daytona. With a smile on her face, she good-naturedly dumped a few sips of her drink on my head.
“If I’ve learned one thing in my life,” Johnson said, “it’s that you don’t mess with the wife.”
If we’ve learned one thing in the last decade in NASCAR, it’s that there’s been no one better than JJ. He gets my vote.