It’s Time to Lay Off of Jimmie

If you are a Seinfeld fan like me, your mind probably went to the same place mine did, when I typed out that headline. I couldn’t help but think back to the episode about the guy that always referred to himself in the third person. “Jimmy is hot on Elaine”. “Jimmy is getting mad”. Jimmy is going to get you Kramer”.

I don’t know if Jimmie Johnson refers to himself in the third person or not, but I do know that he has become a very easy target on social media. Many so-called experts are demanding that he give up his quest to become an IndyCar driver after only six races. Apparently, they are better judges of racing talent than actual racing drivers themselves.

People that I trust within the industry – Robin Miller, Jenna Fryer, Marshall Pruett, Kevin Lee, Curt Cavin – all shared the same opinion going into the season, that Johnson would struggle mightily as a forty-five year-old IndyCar rookie. He has.

Initially, I didn’t believe them. I thought (or hoped) that Jimmie Johnson would defy the ones I really consider to be experts, and be somewhat competitive from the beginning. As it turned out, they were right.

They are also right, when they say that he is getting better as the season progresses. He whittled over a second off of his qualifying time at Belle Isle between Race One and Race Two. Yes, almost every race features a spin by Johnson – but how many have resulted in damage to his car or other cars?

What a lot of people don’t want to seem to understand is that it is harder to first unlearn something, than it is to learn a new skill.

Jimmie Johnson drove fulltime in NASCAR’s Cup Series from 2002 to 2020. All of those nineteen seasons were for Hendrick Motorsports, where he won seven championships. Prior to that, he drove four seasons in the Busch Series, meaning that twenty-three seasons were spent driving lumbering stock cars, mostly on ovals. In fact, for the vast majority of Johnson’s career – he drove only two non-ovals each year; at Watkins Glen and Sonoma. He never drove on a temporary street circuit until driving three of his six IndyCar races on city streets.

Yet, after six races – fans think they have seen enough to pronounce Johnson a failure and banish him from IndyCar forever.

One night last week, I listened to Off Track with Hinch and Rossi – a sometimes hilarious podcast featuring James Hinchcliffe and Alexander Rossi. They usually discuss light-hearted topics like Rossi’s review of a restaurant in Sheboygan and other various topics. But they also have in-depth discussions on racing, that are sometimes not as light-hearted.

It is not unusual that they defended Jimmie Johnson last week, since almost all drivers do. But they had a couple of poignant examples that they gave. Rossi told of coming up to pass Johnson at Road America after a pit stop. He assumed he would be able to overtake Johnson in a couple of corners. Instead, it took four to five laps. It wasn’t because of traffic, aero problems, Johnson’s blocking or any other external factors – it was because Johnson was running competitive times in the race. Rossi said he had a front-row seat to sit and observe Johnson’s driving technique and he was impressed with how he was driving the car. He noted that Johnson’s style was much more refined and polished than the beginning of the season at Barber.

Hinchcliffe chimed in with the best comparison with Johnson’s situation that I’ve ever heard, and quite honestly – I’m surprised someone hasn’t thought of it before now. Hinch went back to Michael Jordon’s attempt to play baseball in 1994. At the time, Jordon was considered one of the greatest athletes in the world. He had retired from the NBA’s Chicago Bulls in the fall of 1993, citing losing his passion for the game – in part due to the murder of his father earlier that summer.

Jordan decided to play baseball in 1994. It was painful to watch the world’s most celebrated athlete struggle in AA minor league ball with the Birmingham Barons, not so coincidentally a farm club of the Chicago White Sox, which also happened to be owned by Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of Jordon’s Chicago Bulls. As great as Jordon was as a basketball player, he simply could not hit a curve ball. Jordon returned to the Bulls in 1995.

Hinchcliffe said that going from stock cars to Indy cars is about as tough as transitioning from basketball to baseball. Hinch went on to say that fans simply don’t understand how very little translates from a 3,500 pound stock car with a roof and fenders, to a nimble 1,500 pound Indy car. It’s tough enough for a rookie to come in and learn the nuances of open wheel race cars with rear engines, but Johnson must first unlearn what he adapted to so successfully in twenty-three years of driving stock cars. That’s a tall order.

Rossi was much more blunt in his assessment, when he said that fans generally don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t fully agree with that. I think a lot of fans do know what they are talking about and they realize it will take Johnson time to make the transition to IndyCar. But the more rationale fans are not the ones doing the chirping on social media.

I’ll be the first to admit that I was not the biggest Jimmie Johnson fan, when he was reeling off seven NASCAR Cup championships from 2006 to 2016. I found him a bit too polished and boring whenever I saw him interviewed. I considered him the prototypical automaton of what NASCAR drivers had become. He never showed his true personality, but always made sure to mention every sponsor.

But never did I question Johnson’s ability as a driver. How could anyone question seven championships? Drivers can luck up, and win a race on a fluke, but even one championship over a thirty-six race season tells you that no flukes were involved. Seven championships? You’re talking racing royalty.

I guess these experts are not thinking about the publicity that Jimmie Johnson is generating for the NTT IndyCar Series. Many companies could learn about sponsor activation from the way Carvana is using Jimmie Johnson in their ads and promotions. I’ll promise you that if Johnson goes away, so does Carvana.

NASCAR fans and NASCAR drivers are watching, also. It did IndyCar no favors when Sam Hornish, Dario Franchitti and Danica Patrick all left IndyCar for NASCAR and struggled mightily. After about ten years at various levels in NASCAR, Hornish finally found a little success in what is now the Xfinity Series. Franchitti had already won an IndyCar championship and an Indianapolis 500, when he ventured off to try NASCAR in 2008. It was a dismal failure, but when he returned to win three more IndyCar championships and two more Indianapolis 500s – it cemented the perception among racing fans that IndyCar was much easier than NASCAR. Now, NASCAR fans are finding out that transitioning from one to the other is extremely difficult – no matter which series a driver comes from.

As Rossi pointed out on the podcast – gone are the days when AJ and Mario can jump from one type of car to another, and win. For better or worse, things have just gotten too specialized these days. AJ and Mario also came up driving front-engine sprints and midgets, which translates a lot better to stock cars than today’s Indy car. Today’s IndyCar driver has most likely spent their entire career in lightweight rear-engine cars. That does not prepare a driver at all for success in NASCAR.

I admire Jimmie Johnson for what he is trying to do. At his age, he could rest on his seven championships and spend every weekend of his life at an exotic location with his family. But Jimmie Johnson is a racer at heart. He grew up watching IndyCar and idolizing Rick Mears and Bobby Rahal. He built a career and fortune winning championships in stock cars. Now he is pursuing something for fun and fans are demonizing him for it because he is not having instant success.

Being from Nashville, we are exposed to a lot of country music. I’m not necessarily a fan of singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, especially lately. But early in her career she wrote a song entitled Ours, which had a line that said “People throw rocks at things that shine”. A small, but vocal, segment of our society seems to have disdain for anyone that enjoys success; and they enjoy seeing those that once tasted success, struggle and endure hardship.

I think it’s time to lay off of Jimmie Johnson. He is too easy of a target right now, and the jokes are generally lame. If you don’t like Jimmie Johnson as a person, that’s fine – but I think it’s time we fans stopped saying he can’t drive or that he’s an embarrassment. If he’s not embarrassing himself, his family, his car-owner or his sponsor – it really doesn’t matter. It may be that the only ones embarrassing themselves are the fans relishing in his struggles.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “It’s Time to Lay Off of Jimmie”

  1. Trevor Gardiner Says:

    Mea culpa…..

  2. Johnson has made some progress on his pace and his racecraft so far this year. He needs to cut down on the caution-causing mistakes, which I suspect he will as he continues to become more comfortable in the car. That will go the longest way in silencing the complainers I think, the cautions have really been highlighting his struggles rather than allowing him to work them out in the relative anonymity of 15th on back. That, said, no one should be acting like he’s Shigeaki Hattori out there.

    Both Johnson and any Indycar driver hopping into a stock car could use a lot more testing than the rules of either series allow these days.

  3. Thank you, George. I couldn’t have said it any better. I was not a JJ fan and thought he was nuts to come to IC. I have come to admire and respect him for trying a completely different racing series. We have so little testing days now and practice can be limited during race weekends depending on where and the weather. It will take time for JJ to master the car. And his Carvana ads are my favorites! I don’t always mute them. I also appreciate Jimmie’s insights and honesty. JJ is definitely not Milka Duno.

  4. instead of Michael Jordan,
    how about Bo Jackson?
    it has been done.

  5. James T Suel Says:

    Well said George!

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