Boss of the Oval Office
The only problem Jimmie Johnson has is that he’s not popular with most NASCAR fans. Johnson is a humble fellow, a quiet Californian who speaks without any Southern twang and has a town house in New York City.
He’s also friends with Jeff Gordon, who urged team owner Rick Hendrick to hire Johnson in 2001 and is a co-owner of Jimmie’s car. Many hard-core NASCAR fans dislike Gordon because he, too, is a non-Southerner, a Californian open-wheel driver who switched to NASCAR and has driven the past 17 years for Hendrick Motorsports, the series’ biggest, most successful team. To their further chagrin, Hendrick swept last year’s championship, with Mark Martin and Gordon finishing second and third behind Johnson, all three aboard similar Chevrolets.
But nobody can deny how good Johnson is and that Hendrick is the best team. Johnson has achieved an unprecedented feat by winning four Sprint Cup titles in a row and doing it in increasingly dominant style. Last year he won seven times. He’s now tied with Gordon on titles, and trails only seven-time champions and NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
At 34, Johnson is still quite young by NASCAR standards. It’s entirely possible that he could equal or even exceed Petty’s and Earnhardt’s championship record. If and when that day arrives, it won’t make NASCAR’s homeboys at all happy.
Juan Pablo Montoya enjoyed his best NASCAR season last year, making the ‘Chase for the Cup’ and finishing eighth in the points. He is enjoying life in NASCAR and has become a big fan of the latest, ill-handling Cup car, introduced two years ago. “Compared to other cars I’ve driven, it handles horribly,” says Juan. “But for racing, it’s the best car I’ve driven. If you could combine the way an open-wheel car drives with the racing we have in NASCAR it would be ideal. I’ve driven all the great cars but the racing has always been terrible. And this racing is incredible! I love it.
“Here, you race close with everybody all the time. It’s very exciting. But in Formula 1 nothing happens. You drive around on your own, you come in [to the pits], you go out, and that’s it.
“In F1,” adds Montoya, “when you’ve got the best car you’ve got to win, and when you don’t have the best car, you don’t win. Here, every week you’ve got a shot at winning. It’s hard because there are four or five cars out there that can win the race.”
Marcos Ambrose raced Formula Fords and F3 in Europe and won two Australian V8 championships before coming to NASCAR. Last year, in his first full Cup season with J T G Daugherty’s Toyota, he finished 18th in the points, ahead of some top NASCAR drivers.
“The cars handle like a school bus at 200mph,” Ambrose laughs. “You’ve got to trick them to make them go.”
But Ambrose, like Montoya, has become a great believer in the ugly handling. “It’s wonderful,” he grins. “They don’t want the car to handle well. Their mission was to make this the toughest race car in the world to drive and they’ve done that. NASCAR want the best drivers to win and they do. You can’t say F1 does that.”
In recent years many open-wheel drivers including Dario Franchitti, Jacques Villeneuve, Paul Tracy and Sam Hornish have tried NASCAR with little or no success. “There are a lot of talented drivers who have come in and struggled,” notes Ambrose. But he is enjoying the challenges involved in stock cars and oval racing.
“You’ve got to run these cars loose at excessive slip angles,” he observes. “You’ve also got to stay relaxed. The moment I start to white-knuckle it, I lose half a second a lap. And you’ve got to be able to run on the apron if you have to, or run three-wide in the middle of a corner. You’ve got to run on the edge all day.”
As the Sprint Cup season gets under way with the 52nd Daytona 500 on February 14, don’t underestimate NASCAR. Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports and their many rivals are as masterful at their craft as any F1 driver or team.