Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR Placed In New Light By Brilliant HBO Series

Over the past two years, I've repeatedly said Jimmie Johnson's dominance is not good for NASCAR. It causes fans to become disinterested and makes many races - and particularly the Chase - entirely predictable.

Despite winning four consecutive championships, Johnson's corporate personality hasn't captured the attention of the mainstream sports fan like a Lance Armstrong or a pre-sex-scandal Tiger Woods, and he has drawn far more boos than cheers within racing - no matter what you've heard about increased souvenir sales.

There hasn't been much else to say about Johnson that you don't already know, which has added to the frustration. It's a tired story, even if it is history. NASCAR has been in need of new blood atop the Sprint Cup championship standings.

But leave it to HBO to take plain yogurt and turn it into crème brulee.

HBO's four-part "24/7" series on Johnson's preparation for the Daytona 500, which debuted last night, is a brilliant piece of television that has never made the sport look better.

The producers even made Johnson interesting by showing some of the "other" Jimmie: Away from the track, he has a sharp sense of humor and isn't afraid to cut loose. But when fans see him on race weekends, he's the polished spokesman for Lowe's.

Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR had to be pleased, especially since they gave complete control to HBO and had no say in what made it onto the show.

That's scary for the world of tightly-controlled images, even for a guy like Dale Earnhardt Jr., who said he was purposely trying to stay away from Johnson during media day because the four-time champion was wired for sound.

"I don't want nothing to do with that," Earnhardt Jr said. "I don't want to be on there, cause they have no editing control, so it's a little dangerous."

At least the first episode was nothing to worry about: The show itself increases NASCAR's appeal and credibility with non-fans who may subscribe to HBO and tune in out of curiosity. It likely won't change Johnson's image overnight, but it could be the start of making his dominance easier to swallow.

Of course, if you ask Johnson, his butt-kicking ways have been good for the sport all along.

"In any sport, to see someone make history is pretty special," he said last week on the preseason media tour. "There's only certain things you can remember and hang onto in sports, and the fact that we've broken history, I think it's very good for the sport. I think it's damn good for the sport.

"If we were able to keep it going, it makes people think back to Earnhardt, it makes people think back to Petty. The question of ‘greatest ever' comes along. In a world of who-punched-who reality TV shows, I think it's pretty damn good to have a good storyline and something positive."

Of course, that's where we disagree – positive storylines aren't bad, but bland ones are. Johnson's Drive for Five isn't going to make people tune in; if anything, it'll continue to turn fans off.

Maybe the superb HBO show can change all that; it's certainly well done. But it's doubtful one series on premium cable can make that great of an impact.

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