Tom Bowles
Thursday December 3rd, 2009

Friday night, Jimmie Johnson will officially make history by accepting his fourth straight championship trophy in Las Vegas. It'll be the culmination of a first-year gamble by NASCAR in Vegas, rolling the dice after the sport moved its season-ending banquet from New York for the first time since 1980. Early returns indicate a jackpot as Vegas has embraced NASCAR with more hoopla in one week than New York City generated in, well, a decade.

So why aren't NASCAR fans excited about one of the few positives to hit the sport this year? The answer is simple: you can change the venue, but you can't change the person sitting at the head table. And after the champion's two weeks of a national campaign across America, we've got a new affliction for racing fans across America: Jimmie Johnson fatigue.

Everywhere you've turned over the last two weeks, chances are you've seen Johnson plastered across your TV screen. Whether with Yankee Johnny Damon on top of the Empire State Building, appearing on Leno, or making the rounds on SportsCenter the day after his title run, Johnson has been everywhere. They say to the victor goes the spoils, well NASCAR is spoiling Johnson rotten by using the history-breaking mark of "four straight" to market him in, oh, about four different ways every hour.

There's just one problem with this strategy: name one memorable moment that stands out from his several appearances on national radio, television and other media outlets. Waiting ... still waiting ...

No, I can't remember one either. Sadly, the best forum for Johnson to display his personality wasn't even televised. It took place at a Wednesday roast, where NASCAR racers poked fun at the four-time champ. The humor was R-rated, but for NASCAR's G-rated everyman that's exactly what fans need to buy into the fact he has a personality! Seriously, wouldn't you rather see other drivers poking fun at Jimmie while he fights off the laughs? Here's a preview, with a little quip from Ryan Newman:

"Wow. Four championships in a row, Jimmie. I bet you wish you could do that with your wife."

Or, would you rather see Johnson sitting at your local TV news desk reading a carefully polished statement while taking the time to thank Lowe's, Kobalt and that little sticker on his front bumper that no one can read but for which the sponsor pays $1 million?

Therein lies the quandary for a sport transformed from rough and rugged to the epitome of political correctness. Their champion, while athletically talented, remains more vanilla in the public eye than the flavor in your local ice cream shop. Sure, he's different in private, but superstars are judged on their public persona -- and there's just nothing there to generate the buzz NASCAR desperately needs.

We've seen this type of problem before in other major sports. David Stern, for example, ran himself ragged trying to push a San Antonio Spurs team that had the public personality of a librarian. It's not an enviable position to be in -- it's an ugly fact that popularity comes from more than just a stat line.

Still, NASCAR has decided the solution is to push harder. In the two weeks since the season ended, we've seen Johnson more than the Super Bowl, World Series, and NBA champs combined after their big wins. It's kind of like trying to force a cat to play with you when the cat is completely uninterested. Pet owners know what I'm talking about here: one toy or six toys aren't going to make a difference, 'cause if the animal doesn't want to play, it won't. And that's exactly what frustrated fans are doing, changing the channel in disgust after being reminded of a run of dominance that reminds them of too many things going wrong in the sport instead of right.

So congratulations, Jimmie, on your fourth straight title in the Cup Series. The overriding theme from most garage insiders is you don't get the credit you're due, and that when everyone takes a step back this offseason, they'll realize what an achievement this was.

But no one can sit back and reflect when you're constantly in front of the camera. Well, Jimmie, as soon as the banquet is over, can you do us one simple favor? Take a hard-earned vacation ... and have NASCAR leave the publicity at home for a bit. It's time to leave sport fans wanting more ... not wanting a break.

Brad Keselowski picked up new crew chiefs for Penske Racing this week. Jay Guy was hired to run his Cup Series program while Paul Wolfe was assigned to the Nationwide team. Both are underrated, but Guy may turn out to be next year's diamond in the rough. Working with an underfunded, single-car team in Furniture Row Racing, he's widely credited for keeping the No. 78 Chevy competitive in the face of teams with ten times the budget. Guy and second-year driver Regan Smith combined for three top-20 finishes during a limited schedule of 18 races -- an impressive feat considering most of their practice time was spent on qualifying setups. One can only imagine how much better he'll do with millions in resources, personnel, and engineering at his disposal.

Colleague Bruce Martin reported this week that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick might be quietly backing off a deal to run Danica Patrick in the Nationwide Series. But at this stage in the game and with no other rookies to promote for 2010, the sport understands the importance of putting her in a stock car sooner rather than later. Sources say there's been some gentle prodding by the powers that be in Daytona Beach to get this done, and how else do you explain Patrick's image in a NASCAR uniform showing up on her website? (The image got taken down in minutes when someone realized the mistake). The deal is taking longer than expected, but all sides realize there's too much to lose financially and PR-wise if it falls through. So count me in the camp expecting Danica in a Nationwide ride at Daytona.

Looking for a place to vent this offseason? I'm happy to announce I'll be trying a mailbag column here at SI.com sometime over the next few weeks. If you've got questions or comments about anything racing, please write to my mailbag, e-mail me at tbowles81@yahoo.com or Tweet me at NASCARBowles. Who knows ... you just might wind up with your name in print!

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