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Fowler: Johnson’s excellence compelling

OPINION

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010

CONCORD, N.C. – You can be perfect only once in a great while, and Jimmie Johnson already can’t be this weekend. There’s no way he can match what he did last October at the 500-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In October 2009 at this track, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus set a goal – they wanted to lead all the practice sessions, win the pole and then win the race itself.

Amazingly, they did all of that. By the end of that race, Johnson’s fourth straight points championship was firmly in hand. He left Charlotte with a 90-point lead with five races to go, and he never came close to relinquishing that margin.

Johnson won’t start from the pole in Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 – he will start 10th – and he hasn’t been the fastest car in practice.

But Johnson remains the big dog – tops in the points standings going in and ready to win again at a track where he has already been victorious in six different Cup races.

When asked this week if he wanted to drive a stake into the heart of his competition once again at this race, Johnson said: “We really hope to.”

So watch the No. 48 Chevrolet. Everyone else will.

This is Johnson’s time of year – when the leaves begin to fall, he invariably starts to pick it up. If he doesn’t finish in the Top 10 tonight, it will be a huge upset.

I enjoy Johnson. To me, sustained excellence is a compelling story. He shouldn’t have to apologize for being a nice guy. And Johnson has lightened his too-corporate image in recent years with an HBO reality show, a willingness to publicly not take himself quite as seriously and that scruffy beard he goes with all the time now.

Once concerned with constantly being professional, Johnson doesn’t sweat the small stuff so much now. He made a mistake Thursday, saying that the next race after this one was in Talladega, Ala., when it’s actually in Martinsville, Va. “Fantastic,” Johnson cracked.

Then, he said to laughter: “I just get on the plane and where it drops me off, I get off. And this week I wasn’t told to go to the airplane so I got in my car and drove here.”

Johnson had one more excuse, too: “I’m also a new parent and it does eat up a lot of time.”

Johnson and his wife, Chandra, have a baby girl named Genevieve, who was born July 7. Johnson has laughingly described his role with the baby as that of “janitor,” so often has he been involved in Genevieve’s burping and diaper-changing.

The customary new-parent sleep deprivation issue hasn’t seemed to affect him. Johnson enters this race in his customary No. 1 position as the Chase nears its midway point.

Because Johnson has been in the lead for so long in the NASCAR pack, he gets blamed for a lot of stuff. Those precipitously declining TV ratings, for one.

“If you argued that Jimmie having success is bad for the sport,” countered driver Jeff Burton, “then why was golf so good when Tiger (Woods) was so good? Doesn’t make sense to me.”

But some people are undoubtedly tired of seeing Johnson win. Bruton Smith, the owner of Charlotte Motor Speedway and also Johnson’s neighbor, said again this week that the best thing that could happen to NASCAR would be for Johnson to get out of his race car, haul off and slap somebody.

“I just think it would help him maybe get away from that vanilla part of Jimmie,” Smith said. “He would show people the other side of Jimmie Johnson. Hey, if he needs to, he can hit me.”

The problem: It wouldn’t be genuine. Johnson doesn’t settle things that way. He can get angry – witness his feud earlier this season with racing teammate and buddy Jeff Gordon, who sits on the pole tonight.

But hauling off and slapping somebody is against his nature. Riding on top of a golf cart isn’t, we have found out, but physical violence isn’t his thing.

Winning, though? That has been Johnson’s thing for years. And I bet that holds again Saturday night – Johnson is my pick to win this race.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

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