FORT WAYNE – He reduces them to awe these days, when hes got it hooked up. And awe is not your standard NASCAR affect, given that NASCAR drivers tend to be seven parts swagger to three parts bluster.
But then here comes Jimmie Johnson, and suddenly its Jaw-Drop City.
Jimmie Johnson was just in his own country today, Kyle Busch said after last years Brickyard, reverent as an altar boy suddenly.
It didnt really matter if you were in front of him or not, he was going to pass you in about four or five laps anyway, Greg Biffle concurred.
One of the best drivers the sport has ever seen, says Dale Earnhardt Jr., who, being the son of another, ought to know.
Earnhardt said that not after the Brickyard last year but after Johnson ran away with the Pocono race in June. And thats bad news for everyone because it indicates that Johnson not only has not lost a step since last July, he may have gained one.
Already, the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champ has won four times and put up 13 top 10s and eight top fives this year, a clear hint that hes mastered the new Gen-6 car as thoroughly as he did the Gen-5.
Already, hes 56 points clear of Clint Bowyer for the 2013 points lead, and when he won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona this month with yet another dominant performance, he became the first driver since Bobby Allison in 1982 to win both Daytona races in a single season.
Pretty cool stuff, said Chad Knaus, Johnsons longtime crew chief. I can remember when we started this team, we didnt have anything. We hadnt won a race, we hadnt led a lap, we hadnt done anything, and the first thing that we did was come down here for the Daytona 500, and we sat on the pole.
That was five championships and 64 career victories ago. And now Johnson and Knaus are fused by history as one of the iconic NASCAR driver/crew chief combinations of all time.
I think what weve done over the course of the year probably sends the biggest message that were buttoned up and ready and in a position to win a sixth championship, Johnson said after leading 94 of the 160 laps to at Daytona. But theres a lot that can take place between now and Homestead. The Chase is so different. When we get to the Chase there are certain feelings that seem to come around, but right now its really about managing your team, managing your car, developing the car. Things like that.
Doubtless part of that caution stems from the fact Johnson remembers last year, when he led the Chase with two races to go and finished 32nd at Phoenix and 36th at Homestead to surrender the title. And doubtless part of it is simply experience talking, the sort of experience that makes Johnson the dominant racer of his generation.
Much of NASCAR Nation reviles him for that, forgetting that he has exactly the sort of hardscrabble backstory that made them love Dale Earnhardt. But hes no smirking hard case like The Intimidator was, and so he simply doesnt resonate the same way.
All Johnson does is win. With a numbing consistency that occasionally obscures the fact hes one of the best wheel men in the business.
At Indy last year for instance, he pulled off a four-wide pass on Landon Cassill that shouldnt have been possible. Yet he did it, and went on to win the Brickyard for a fourth time, leading 99 of the 160 laps and winning by nearly five seconds.
A year later, not much has changed. And theres no secret to why.
Its about the team, Johnson said this month, when asked about all that numbing consistency. Its people. People make the difference. Chad and I have had a relationship since the first time we drank beer in my backyard throwing horseshoes. There was just something there that worked.
Johnson being the foremost part of it.
The cold hard facts of the matter is we could have the best race car out there, but if we had some schmuck driving it, it wouldnt get the job done, Knaus says. I think weve got the best race car driver ever to sit in a Cup car behind the wheel, and I think thats the biggest key.
Like it or not.