As far as we know, the two men are not related by blood or marriage. A fiery will to win might be their strongest common trait.
And there’s the homophone that relates Jimmy Johnson, the retired NFL coach who steered the Dallas Cowboys to two Super Bowl victories in the ’90s; to Jimmie Johnson, the NASCAR superstar who is currently ranked second in the points standings and trying for his seventh Sprint Cup series championship. To say that the name has roiled emotions and raised hackles in both sports would be putting it mildly. So let’s call it what it is: an object of scorn, a collection of scarlet letters.
With Jimmy, the most common objections were at least somewhat understandable. He populated his NFL locker room with the same kind of outlaw personalities he'd guided to consecutive national championships at the University of Miami, used hair gel by the barrel, and had an ego the size of Southfork Ranch. And yet the coach was no more disliked than anyone else who wore the famed star—especially by those who called New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or Washington, D.C. their home. The Cowboys as a whole were the target.
A knock on Jimmie the driver? That hardly counts as a rap against Hendrick Motorsports—the home team of Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver. Nor is it easily attributed to a vainglorious owner—as is ever the case with the Cowboys and Jerry Jones. No, a knock on Jimmie is only because of Jimmie, and only against Jimmie—who, really, couldn’t be a nicer guy. Or more popular with his peers. Or less bothered by the ill will that flies in his path like sharp tacks.
And why would he be? The majority of the complaints he receives read more like compliments: He lives a charmed life, is too squeaky clean, is not badass enough. Such were the gripes that Sporting News writer Bob Pockrass heard after polling his social media followers for their opinions of Jimmie nearly two years ago. But in the interregnum, the tone has turned nastier, more personal. One Twitter troll went as far as wishing “pancreatic cancer on the 48!” A Facebook group called “I hate the #48 team and Jimmy Johnson” anchors itself with a picture of Jimmie extricating himself from his flaming race car. “Too bad he’s not on fire as well,” sniped one commenter.
Enmity for the driver burns much more intensely than your gridiron variety anti-Cowboy fever -- which, for many, is little more than an allergic reaction to the team’s inflated sense of self-importance and lack of accomplishment since 1996 -- because #48hate’s primary fuel source is so great: Jimmie's track record of excellence.
Not even another tweak to NASCAR’s postseason format, which places a heavier premium on regular-season wins in 2014, could keep Jimmie Johnson out of the mix for long. After starting the season 0-for-11, he rattled off three wins in his next four events. In the last 10 of the 16 races he’s run this year, he's led 23.6 percent of the time and run with the top five 47 percent -- the best splits of any Cup driver. Only two others -- Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick -- pick up more speed on a quarter-by-quarter basis.
Put simply: the man just has a way of coming through in crunch time. In recognition of that knack and as a reward for capturing the 2013 Sprint Cup series crown, the 48 team was formally recognized at a White House ceremony on Wednesday. “He’s pretty much the Michael Jordan of NASCAR,” President Barack Obama said of Jimmie. “He won a few titles, took a two-year break, decided, you know what, it is not that interesting, and then got back to winning again. And now opposing drivers are saying things like, ‘Unfortunately, we are driving during the Jimmie Johnson era. He’s the best there ever was.’”
As possible proof of that statement, consider Jimmie's presence in the White House guest book, where he leads the other Jimmy by five entries to two. The coach—who visited D.C. in 1988 after his Hurricanes won the national title; and in 1994 after the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVII—famously skipped out on a Clinton Administration fete in the wake of Dallas's repeat to go fishing in the Florida Keys. The driver can’t remember whether he made the trip to Washington after his fourth Cup series victory in 2009. For many 48 haters, that success-driven memory lapse will be reason enough to resent Jimmie all the more. That lovely presidential endorsement might well go down as another.
Coming as it did from a polarizing leader, it of course threatens to be a PR problem for Jimmie with NASCAR’s red-state base. Never mind that Obama is talking sense here. Another series championship would put Jimmie level with stock car immortals Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt atop the all time titles list—an achievement that will almost surely make Jimmie an even more vilified figure. At just 38 years old, he still has plenty of time to not just overtake the King and the Intimidator in the record books, but blow past them. For the trite-and-true Jimmie detractor, there is no bigger fear.
Petty and Earnhardt, after all, were outsized figures who spoke their minds and wore their emotions as prominently as the decals on their fire suits. The popular presumption was that their prosperity was a product of a certain attitude: roguish, rough around the edges, and—it must be said—southern. Largely forgotten are the equipment advantages that Petty and Earnhardt held over their rivals. They were every bit as vast as the mechanical edge Jimmie holds today.
But somehow Jimmie wound up the bad guy. Because, like Jeff Gordon—his Hendrick garagemate and the first West Coaster to make his name in a southern game—Jimmie was born in SoCal and raised not to drop his Gs. Because he (allegedly) cheats—a claim that, frankly, is a bit rich for a sport that began as a vehicle for skirting prohibition laws. Because he operates on a plane so high that he compels casual fans to take note, just as Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin did in their heyday under Jimmy Johnson.
Perhaps if racing weren’t so broad, so fast and so difficult to capture on television, Jimmie’s true genius—the care with which he treats his car, the electric feel he has for the rhythm of a race—might be better understood. But all the great ones have their intangibles. Jimmy Johnson was no different. Folks still can’t figure out if his coaching or his recruiting made the Hurricanes and Cowboys so great—just that both squads won another championship right after he left.
But since the Cowboys and 'Canes have fallen from the ranks of the juggernauts and become a decidedly average team, Jimmy has been reborn as a universally beloved figure in broadcasting. A similar fate may await Jimmie when he’s done turning laps, winning races and elevating blood pressure in NASCAR nation. It’s just too bad that Johnson the driver has to wait until his tank is empty for his haters to truly appreciate how far he’s taken his sport.