Like any NASCAR fan, I have my drivers I root for. Over the last five years or so, though, I've attempted to take a fair stance on all drivers. That hasn't ever really worked - there are three current drivers, for instance, that I'll openly root against as a fan, though I give them "fair ink" when I write a story on them - but for the most part, I've been able to give the competitors a fair shake.
Of course, that entailed attempting to be kind to Jimmie Johnson.
As a person, Johnson seems pretty easy to be kind to. He seems like one of the true good guys in contemporary professional sports. If good things happen to good people, he has to be one of the best people on the planet, based off his nine-year Sprint Cup career. As a racer, though, attempting to like the Californian, especially when you've watched him snatch more than a handful of victories from your particular favorite drivers - see: 2005 Coca-Cola 600, 2007 Kobalt Tools 500, the latter of which I had the displeasure of attending - has been downright hard.
As such, over the last five years, I would curse through a clenched grin when the No. 48 Chevrolet team crossed the finish line first or took yet another championship home. I was one of the fans who felt Johnson's success was detrimental to the stock car racing, that his team's run of dominance was ruining the greatest sport on earth. Even when Tony Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing - ending the Home Depot vs Lowes competition that had been one of my key reasons for not rooting for Johnson in his earlier Cup career - couldn't soften my opinion. All I wanted was to see someone, anyone knock him off that pedestal.
After he clinched his fifth-straight title last November, however, I took a long hard look at ol' Five-Time and his team and what they've done, and I found my opinion changing in a big, big way.
See, professional sports are built on their history. Take the New York Yankees' dominance of the 1950s, for instance. As hated as the franchise became for its decade-long decimation of the American League (eight league pennants, which translated to six World Series titles), Casey Stengel's Bronx Bombers are an integral part of baseball lore.
The same is true in auto racing. Regardless of the contemporary feelings during a period of excellence by one team, that excellence has sculpted the history of our sport.
One stretch of dominance I can speak on, having witnessed it personally, is Jeff Gordon's sparkling five-year period from 1995-1999. Gordon led the series in victories all five years - ultimately recording an incredible 47 triumphs - and won three championships. And folks - myself included - hated him for it.
Nowadays, it seems more fans - again, myself included - than not like Gordon. He has become a beloved figure. His impact on the sport, thanks in large part to those numbers he and his team put up in the late 1990s, is as strong as any driver in the sport's modern era.
Johnson's streak is similar to that of his teammate. He's led the circuit in wins three times since joining the circuit in 2002 and has picked up 54 wins in that stretch, by far the most of any driver. More importantly, he and his Chad Knaus-led team have consistently found ways to win and in-arguably been the sport's best team at taking less than stellar days and making something big - often a trip to victory lane - out of them.
And to argue that without the Chase they would not have been nearly as successful is a bit misguided. They melted down as rookies late in '02, but Johnson's team was likely the best in 2003. He was felled by two last-lap accidents - one at Las Vegas, when he was spun off the last turn by Sterling Marlin, and another at Fontana when he and Mark Martin tangled. He slid in oil at Dover in June and crashed while running in the top-five, and was knocked into a spin by Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega, eventually leading to a blown motor. The points lost in those races would have far more than enough to overcome his final 90-point deficit to Matt Kenseth. As the team improved, there's no reason to believe they couldn't have been just as strong over a full 36-race season as they have been during the Chase era.
The No. 48 team is just NASCAR's latest version of the Bronx Bombers, a team that has it's way with the sport for a few years. They aren't destroying it, they're building it and its history.
So if my love of stock car racing and my fear that Double-J has been slowly destroying it, piece by piece, wasn't much of a reason - at least for me, to each their own - to dislike him as a racer, no matter how much I respected him, I needed to find another one. I couldn't, and now Johnson ranks among my better liked drivers.
Ah, confession is good for the soul.