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April 20, 2014

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Will a fourth consecutive title by Jimmie Johnson be good or bad for NASCAR?

A friend asked me this week if I thought a fourth consecutive title by Jimmie Johnson would be good or bad for NASCAR. “It will be good and bad for NASCAR,” I said.

Why is it good? What sport wouldn’t want a photogenic, articulate and polite athlete as its star performer? Especially in a time when there are so many professional athletes who are ethically challenged, have issues with law enforcement or are chemically dependent. As a four-time champion, Johnson would be a classy representative for the sport who would also help to debunk many of the stereotypes people apply to stock car racing.

But, unfortunately, some of the attributes that make him a positive for the sport also make him a negative for the sport. Johnson’s polite demeanor results in a charge, made by a large segment of the NASCAR fan base, that he’s too vanilla. As a result, he’s not as popular as he should be and doesn’t get the respect he deserves. Do his movie-star looks, beautiful wife and lack of a few rough edges make him a figure that’s hard for the majority of fans to relate to? Maybe. But there are athletes with similar attributes in other sports and they are adored by most of the fans.

At last week’s Cup race in Phoenix, Johnson received a mountain of boos during driver introductions. That’s unfortunate. Would fans rather see a more colorful driver competing for his fourth consecutive title? Suppose the very colorful Kyle Busch was on the verge of capturing the Sprint Cup? Many fans would be dismayed that someone they consider to be a jerk would be the champion.

And Johnson isn’t the first nice guy to come along in NASCAR. Bill Elliott is a nice guy who isn't know for being colorful in front of the TV cameras, but he has consistently been one of the most popular drivers in the sport.

I’ll admit that I like a driver who has a little edge to his personality. Dale Earnhardt was my favorite driver. But I can also appreciate what Johnson has accomplished and I can see where his type of charisma, which is much different than the late Dale Earnhardt’s, makes him a good representative for stock car racing.

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Regardless of his effect on the sport, Johnson may rewrite the history books this weekend at Homestead. That is a tremendous accomplishment that may take several years for another driver to accomplish. Johnson may not put more people in the stands, but he will represent the sport in a professional fashion that can only reflect positively on the state of Sprint Cup racing.

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