Richard Petty was the homespun one. Nearly a caricature, really, as he dominated racing in the 1960s and ‘70s. The thick southern drawl. The easy-going nature. The Grand Ole Opry wardrobe. The common man’s touch (who else would come up with a racetrack delicacy such as the one he once sold: Richard Petty’s Chicken on a Stick).
Dale Earnhardt was the cold-blooded one. He didn’t smile nearly so much while taking over for Petty. He could be the flip side of the good ol’ boy, the uncompromising competitor in a black car who was not just rough around the edges, but positively serrated. And his innate genius for marketing happily coincided with NASCAR’s own growth spurt.
Jimmie Johnson, who drives this weekend to equal the Petty/Earnhardt shared mark of seven major NASCAR series championships, is a different sort altogether. He is the kinder, gentler one. As far from southern as you can get, California-born for the love of moonshine.
You can trace the eras of racing – for better or worse – through the personas of those who ruled it. Racing went from the southern backroads to regional asphalt to seeking a niche nationwide. It cleaned the grease from beneath its nails and took a meeting with Wall Street. And thus did the sport go from Petty to Earnhardt to Johnson (and remember Jeff Gordon, too).
Johnson comes to Homestead, Fla., on Sunday needing to finish higher than the other members of the Chase final four (Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch) to win a seventh title. If he does, he will have achieved the record over 11 seasons. It took Petty 16 and Earnhardt 15. That can happen when you rip off five straight at one point (2006-10).
As smooth off the track as on, Johnson has done nothing with his stature but build a platform of quiet brilliance and understatement in the face of dominance. He has been the perfectly groomed driver of a corporate logo-saturated sport. That’s racing in our time.
And in that vein, Johnson approaches a historic run in the most calculating and professional of ways.
“I'm not running from it (matching the sainted Earnhardt and Petty). I'm not hiding from it. It's just truthfully right now for me to do my job and prepare and all the stuff that goes into racing and being competitive. (The record's) just not top of mind,” Johnson told the media this week.
“I'm more focused on winning the race, trying to qualify on the pole, understand in the middle of the day what I need for the car to do, come dusk and when the sun sets. I've been so caught up in notes and videos and talking setups and pouring through data and all of that stuff that the seven is there, I'm happy to talk about it. But I don't know what else to add to it. I am just all in (the mindset of) race winning.”
It is the same manner in which Johnson has accepted the transformation he has made from unpopular outsider to sentimental favorite in the eyes of the fans. With a little touch of humor added at the end.
“I think anybody that's winning gets booed,” he said. “I watched Earnhardt get booed. I watched Gordon get booed. When you get older and don't win as much, you get cheered a bit more. I watched that for both of those guys. I get more cheers now, so I hope that doesn't mean I'm running out of wins and championships.”
Johnson is 41, looks younger and may have more opportunities to join Petty and Earnhardt on the Mount Rushmore of his sport.
But how can you not pull for him to get it done now, with this opportunity so tantalizingly at hand?
There are no other drivers out there who better represent this era of racing, no one else who more deserves the seal of authenticity that comes with this championship record.
Even his chief competitors can’t think of a reason to root against Johnson.
“Jimmie is one of those guys you want to hate, but you can't because he's too nice,” Logano said.