NASCAR's New Champion Lags in Popularity

The Associated Press
Monday, November 20, 2006; 9:39 PM

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- There's an Internet video of a family in its kitchen watching October's last-lap wreck at Talladega. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson crash on the final lap, the family flies into an expletive-laden rage against Johnson.

Widely viewed throughout NASCAR, it took Earnhardt and Denny Hamlin to make Johnson aware of the clip.

"That was one of the funniest videos I've ever seen," Hamlin told him, choking back laughter. "Even the toddler was ripping you."

Johnson is NASCAR's nicest guy and its newest champion, but he's far from a fan favorite.

With 23 career victories and his first Nextel Cup championship, Johnson's still working on winning over fans: He ranked a distant 10th last season in final voting for NASCAR's most popular driver.

Routinely booed during pre-race introductions, he's had more than one Victory Lane celebration spoiled by debris raining down from the grandstands. Although that didn't happen Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he hardly was embraced. His haters didn't even bother sticking around, making the final trophy presentation somewhat muted.

"He is a genuine person, the kind that fans should embrace," said Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Hampton, who attended eight races this season, including Sunday's finale, as Johnson's guest.

"Instead, he's kind of the poster guy _ when things look too good, you say 'Man, I've got to break this down and figure out what's wrong with him.' But the honest answer is there's nothing. He treats the valet the exact same way he would treat the President of the United States. You don't get that a lot in professional athletes, but with Jimmie, what you see is what you get."

It's hard to figure out exactly where Johnson went wrong. Since breaking onto the Cup scene in late 2001, he has been a model of consistency on and off the track. He works hard, wins races and competes for championships.

He's never punched a photographer or cursed on national TV. He's never been in trouble with the law and hasn't disrespected a NASCAR official.

He shows up where he's supposed to, honors his commitments and is almost always on time.

Maybe that's the problem.

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