An Athlete? Johnson Among Greats, Actually

Face the truth, NASCAR haters: Jimmie Johnson has a better chance of completing an NFL pass than Donovan McNabb has of avoiding a wreck in a race. That’s the finest defense I can give Johnson in what should be a glorious time in his almighty career, the celebration of a sixth Sprint Cup championship, leaving him one short of Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt and intensifying a debate on which of the three is the best ever.

Clouding his party in Miami, oddly, was a cheap-headline comment that resonated through a racing world long hijacked by its own Southern-fried inferiority complex. McNabb, twice called out in his quarterbacking career for being out of shape (Terrell Owens accused him of vomiting in the final minutes of a Super Bowl), opined in a Fox Sports 1 roundtable discussion that Johnson’s feat shouldn’t be viewed as elite athleticism.

“Do I think he’s an athlete? Absolutely not,” McNabb said. “He’s not an athlete. He sits in a car and he drives. That’s not athletic. What athletically is he doing?”

Well, he IS steering a stock car at preposterously high speeds, a skill that requires optimum equilibrium and concentration behind a wheel and the kind of hand-to-eye coordination you’d find in a brain surgeon. And he IS participating in a survival sport that, like football, quickly can reduce one to a cripple after a bad collision. McNabb said what various bashers have said for years, but his words hurt feelings in the NASCAR community because he’s a well-known retired athlete who played a physical sport. Rather than engage in the smarter argument — how would Johnson fare against the two most accomplished good old boys in the sport’s throwback eras? — race fans were yanked into the athlete-or-not discourse that is far beneath Johnson’s staggering body of work.

Still just 38, he has ruled a sport during a period when the technology, the cars and the competition are at supreme levels. He won his six titles in eight years, which is unprecedented, and his 66 Sprint Cup victories over the last 11 years are 30 more than his closest rival in the same timeframe. With his partner in crime, crew chief Chad Knaus, Johnson is something of an automaton, the surest bet in NASCAR history. You’d have to be pretty ignorant to say a sportsman with his resume isn’t an athlete.

“Yes, I am an athlete, and so is every other driver in one of these race cars … even Tony Stewart,” said Johnson, able to crack wise as a quiet, easygoing superstar who never has courted controversy. “I did have some great support over the last couple of days, which is awesome.

“It’s not like me to think in that light. I guess I need to open my mind to it, because the numbers speak for themselves. I find myself in a touchy situation sometimes in that my quiet approach can be looked at as arrogant or cocky, and that’s the furthest thing from the truth in what I’m trying to portray. I’m just trying to say the right things and keep my mind in the right space. I haven’t let a lot in, and it’s led to more success, and it’s kept my work ethic intact and it’s kept me honest and humble. I like that about myself. I don’t know if I want to open my mind up and let it in (and consider) where I might stand in the sports world. It’s not time for that, in my eyes.”

Michael Jordan, among others, thought otherwise. Filled with NASCAR awareness and knowledge as owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, in the gearhead epicenter of North Carolina, Jordan had been kidding Johnson about having only five titles to his six championships. “I can’t wait to send him a text and say, `Hey, buddy, I’ve caught up,’ ” Johnson said.

The knock is that he’s too much of a corporate machine and not enough of a down-and-dusty folk hero like Petty and Earnhardt. Like most sporting disputes involving different eras — Jordan vs. LeBron James, for one — it’s generational in nature and difficult to resolve. The consensus is that Petty may have tried to ram Johnson into a wall while Johnson would have used high tech and conditioning — he runs, he swims, he cycles, he competes in triathlons — to gain a sophisticated training edge. If you’d like to call him the greatest NASCAR driver ever, you won’t be shouted down. But first he needs No. 7 to tie Petty and Earnhardt, then No. 8 to top them.

“I feel like this team is capable of a lot of great things. There’s still great years ahead of us,” Johnson told the media. “But all of that is in the future, a seventh, an eighth. I don’t want to focus on that yet. It’s not time. I think we need to save the argument until I hang up the helmet, then it’s worth the argument. Let’s wait until I hang up the helmet until we really start thinking about this.”

Forget the NASCAR debate. Within an individual sport, who has been more dominant this century? Tiger Woods held all four of golf’s major titles at once. Roger Federer won 16 of 27 Grand Slams in an eight-year period. Michael Phelps won 18 swimming gold medals in Athens, Beijing and London. Certainly, Johnson belongs in the fraternity.

“Unfortunately, we’re racing during the Jimmie Johnson era,” rival Denny Hamlin said. “We’re just unlucky in that sense. I think being out there and racing with him, I can say he’s the best that there ever was. He’s racing against competition that is tougher than this sport’s ever seen.”

Too bad the pundits, wrong as they are, can be even tougher.