Is Jimmie Johnson finally beginning to win over fans?
NOV 21, 2013 6:12p ET
Jimmie Johnson, only days removed from his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title, has had few problems winning races and championships since joining NASCAR's top series in 2002.
As for winning a popularity contest, that's an altogether different matter.
While there is truly little not to like about Johnson -- one of the most mild-mannered, well-spoken, humble drivers in the NASCAR garage -- many fans of the sport dislike him simply because he's won too much and too often.
Unlike Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has been voted NASCAR's most popular driver the past 10 years, Johnson has admittedly struggled to connect with fans on the same level as Earnhardt, fellow teammate Jeff Gordon, and even the likes of veteran Tony Stewart and 2013 Sprint Cup Series rookie Danica Patrick.
But moments after Johnson crossed the finish line Nov. 17 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to claim NASCAR's top prize for the sixth time in eight years, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet wasn't greeted with a chorus of boos. Instead, he actually heard what sounded like approval coming from the grandstands.
So, are fans perhaps finally warming up to Johnson, despite his continued success?
"Potentially," said Johnson, whose six championships are one shy of the all-time record shared by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. "There was a lot of cheering, through all the social channels, a lot of respect being shown for the 48. I can't tell you how many things I've seen. Not usually cheering for you, but congrats, respect.
"At the end of the day, that's what I would hope for. People don't have to be my fan. But I'm a very respectful person. When respect is shown to me or handed out to me, I take that and appreciate it."
“When respect is shown to me or handed out to me, I take that and appreciate it.”
Perhaps Johnson's standing as a family man is helping his appeal. At Homestead, where he finished ninth to take the title by 19 points over Matt Kenseth, Johnson was seen warmly embracing his wife, Chandra, during the post-race celebration. Johnson also spent some time playfully interacting with his oldest child, 3-year-old Genevieve Marie. The Johnsons also have another daughter, Lydia Norriss, who was born in September.
"It's an incredible experience," Johnson said of being a parent. "There's such joy and pride. My family makes a lot of sacrifices to support me. I have so much respect and appreciation of the sacrifices made. I'm not sure why (wife) Chani was emotional as she was. She's typically not, nor am I. When she started to lose it, it sucked me in. I started to lose it, as well.
"There was just an overwhelming sense of pride. It comes from a lot of different angles, the work that goes into it, the sacrifice. I'm just a proud father and a proud husband."
Like so many other parents, Johnson believes raising children has made him different.
"There's something activated in me -- I think all parents can speak to this -- once you have kids and they're born, your heart changes and you love in different ways, a different capacity," he said. "All that stuff is going on, leads me down the road to where I am today, the position I'm in today, enjoying those moments."
As the championship battle intensified in the final weeks of the 2013 season, Johnson found a little relief trying to help Genevieve understand what exactly was at stake for her father.
"It's been really neat," Johnson said. "She gets it for the most part. The championship part, I'm not sure she understands how that all works just yet.
"She knew I didn't win the race (at Homestead), but we were holding the trophy and celebrating. She asked me a couple questions I've been trying to explain. I've been trying to explain for a few weeks about the championship, the points, what daddy is trying to do. It still hasn't registered yet.
"Denny (Hamlin, race winner) was in Victory Lane. She didn't understand why we were celebrating. It's been fun trying to teach her all those things."