NASCAR & Auto Racing

Johnson: Winning, not foolishness

CONCORD, N.C. - Kyle Busch dominates most of the season. Carl Edwards grabs Kevin Harvick by the throat. Tony Stewart forces Regan Smith below the yellow line, or maybe Smith goes down there by himself.

Drivers bang on each other on the track and off the track and manufacture just enough controversy to give fans a reason to buy a ticket.

While they do that, Jimmie Johnson wins. Johnson goes through the season, and life, untouched by controversy and bad publicity. He makes no foolish moves on the track and he makes no foolish moves off it.

Athletes like to talk about how they knew they had arrived when the sport slowed down for them. But how do you make cars that tear around the race track in close quarters and at great speeds slow down?

Ask Johnson. Johnson has won the last two Cup championships, and he leads this one. Train your binoculars on him at the Bank of America 500 and make a mark in your notebook every time you see a mistake. As Saturday night moves toward Sunday morning, your notebook is empty and your pen is full.

When Johnson, 33, is introduced before the race, there are a few cheers and a few boos and considerable indifference.

What is it about him? Maybe he needs a nickname. The great ones have a great nickname they can wrap their personality around.

Richard Petty is The King, Dale Earnhardt will always be the Intimidator and Tony Stewart is Smoke.

What's Johnson's nickname?

Jimmie.

No, that's his first name. What's his nickname?

Champ.

Come on. If Stewart is Smoke, Johnson must be something. What?

A better driver than Smoke is.

But how do you wrap a personality around a nickname if you don't know what the personality is?

Kyle Busch is reckless and compelling. Carl Edwards is the guy whose image did a backflip off the top of his Ford this week and has yet to land.

Johnson has a foundation that does excellent work. He drives aggressively yet patiently. He is unfailingly polite.

And as he walks through the Lowe's Motor Speedway garage after fading to a sixth-place finish, a fan moves toward him and then stops.

"What did you do that for?" a woman asks.

"He looks mad," says the fan.

Johnson is.

Asked if he was looking forward to Martinsville Speedway next week, Johnson says, "Right now I'm (angry) about tonight."

Obviously, he didn't say angry, but it's a family newspaper.

Whoa. Kyle Busch Lite.

Johnson glares beneath his black Lowe's cap.

"I had to take a lot of chances and I don't like to put myself in that situation," Johnson says.

But it is the other drivers who have to take chances to catch him. And Johnson is better than anybody about not trying to get everything now, at setting opponents up and seemingly allowing them to come to him.

He rarely is spectacular because he doesn't have to be. What he is, by any objective measure, is one of the great drivers of all time. While others collect attention, he wins races and championships.

He did last season and the season before, and he's almost certain to do it again.

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