Aftermath, Darlington: Was It OK For Fans To Cheer Jimmie Johnson's Wreck?

The biggest cheers on Saturday night at Darlington came not for a thrilling pass or race-winning move, but for a violent wreck that left Jimmie Johnson's car demolished.

Before Johnson was even out of the car, tens of thousands of fans were on their feet yelling and screaming and expressing their overall happiness that the four-time defending champion had crashed out of the Showtime Southern 500.

Are NASCAR fans barbaric to cheer when a hated driver gets wrecked? Do they have a bloodlust, wanting to see an injury?

Some would argue that nine years after the sport's greatest driver was killed in an innocent-looking wreck, fans should perhaps hold their applause until they see a driver is OK.

I'm not included in that group. It may sound bad to those who would prefer to hold fans to a higher standard, but I don't see any problem with the fans who cheered Johnson's wreck on Saturday night.

Why? Because I don't believe most fans were cheering for Johnson to be injured; they were cheering because the reviled No. 48 car – which has tortured a large percentage of fans by winning repeatedly over the last four years –was done for the night.

Johnson said he had the wind knocked out of him, though he was unhurt. As fans expected, he walked to the ambulance without a limp or sign of injury and was giving interviews about the wreck only minutes after it happened.

Fans are so accustomed to drivers surviving crashes – no matter how terrible – that wrecks are almost like a basketball player fouling out or a baseball player getting ejected.

If the driver is disliked, the reaction becomes a giddy one: Ha ha! See ya later! You're done! Goodbye!

It's likely a false sense of security given the inherent danger of racing cars at 200 mph, but it's a sense of security nonetheless.

I prefer to think that if Johnson's wreck were of the terrifying Michael McDowell variety, fans would have had a different, more subdued reaction. In the case of a flip or fire, the immediate thoughts turn to driver safety and fear fills the pits of witnesses' stomachs.

So although Johnson got clobbered at Darlington, most people figured he'd be OK. And so it was a cause to celebrate the 48's demise – at least for the evening.

But what about the darker side of this situation? I'm not naïve enough to believe every fan was cheering because they knew Johnson was uninjured.

Because when it comes to the NFL, I admit it: I've been that ugly fan.

It may look horrible or disgusting to see these words in print, but there have been times when I openly rooted for an opposing quarterback to get injured. Not for their career, but just enough to knock them out of the game. Or a couple games.

Maybe it's part of our desensitized society, but if my team was playing the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethisberger suffered a sprained knee or separated shoulder, I wouldn't have felt badly at all.

Sorry, but should I feel sympathetic because the guy is still getting paid a gazillion dollars to play a game and he has to sit out for a week or two?

But spending every week at a NASCAR track and seeing the drivers so often, I don't wish any type of injury on any of them. It makes a difference when you know them as people and can't just cheer or jeer from afar.

Because I feel differently about football, though, I can envision a few fans in the stands at Darlington who were hoping Johnson broke his foot in the crash. So I can't sit here and condemn them for that.

Maybe that's the side of fandom no one wants to talk about. Still, if people spend their hard-earned money to come watch millionaire drivers race at unreasonable speeds and want to celebrate when their least-favorite cars crash?

Then cheer on, NASCAR fans.

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