Since the Victory Lane interview was invented, most drivers have instinctively snapped right into “Aw, shucks” mode, telling the world they couldn’t have done it without their sponsors, their car owner, their team and their loyal fans. Then the winner usually wipes the sweat from his brow and tells the world about the lucky breaks he caught in order to come out on top.
But on Saturday night in Daytona Beach, Jimmie Johnson didn’t bother with all that. Despite NASCAR’s best efforts to level the playing field and meddle in every aspect of restrictor-plate racing to ensure every race at Daytona and Talladega has a classic finish, Johnson whipped the rest of the Sprint Cup field.
He knew it and so did the rest of the world. They could have had five more green-white-checkered finishes and the result still would have been the same. So when the camera found Johnson in Victory Lane, he wasn’t about to act like a guy who won a game of chance.
“I don’t know if I really made a bad move tonight,” Johnson said. “So I’m pretty proud of that.”
When race fans complain about Johnson’s recent domination of the sport, they complain about how boring the guy is. He just goes about his business, says all the right things and keeps on winning trophies.
But Johnson is far more than a mild-mannered driver who fell in with the right crew chief and the right team owner at the right time. No matter what era you’re competing in, you have to be a stone-cold killer to win five consecutive championships. You have to be selfish, unapologetic, stubborn and thoroughly convinced that you are the best in the world at what you do.
Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Dale Earnhardt and every other great champion throughout history fits that bill, and so does Johnson. It wasn’t as obvious during his five-year title run, but after two seasons without winning a title, Johnson’s hunger to regain his throne is slowly stripping away the polite veneer that has covered his naked desire to dominate anyone who gets in his way.
On more than one occasion this season, Johnson has complained about late-race restarts that he believes cost him victories. Many fans have written his complaints off as pettiness, but in Johnson’s mind, his complaints come from the belief that he is the best driver with the best car. He believes he gave those races away, and it burns him up to think about it.
As Kasey Kahne found out on Saturday, even teammates aren’t safe from Johnson’s laser-like focus on winning.
Kasey Kahne had been pushing Johnson at the front of the pack for most of the race when Johnson moved up the track and hung him out to dry in the final laps. When Marcos Ambrose tried to pass Johnson on the low side moments later, Johnson slammed the door on Ambrose, sending his car careening into Kahne’s vehicle and ending his teammate’s night.
Now, I’m not saying that Johnson wrecked Kahne on purpose, but he certainly didn't go out of his way to look out for his teammate when the chips were down. If Johnson were being honest, he would tell you that approach is what it takes to win championships.
And as it stands now, it’s hard to envision this season ending without Johnson clutching his sixth championship trophy. The only question is whether Johnson goes Real World: NASCAR.
I, for one, would love to see one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport stop being so polite and start getting real. I think he should grow a goatee and start referring to himself in the third person.
In a sport sorely lacking personality, it’s a shame that one of the brashest, boldest and most talented drivers in the garage area is masquerading as a nice guy.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.