CONCORD, N.C. — Even before the start of last Saturday’s Sprint All-Star race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, fans had a sense of what was about to happen when they booed Jimmie Johnson during driver introductions.
The only driver to win five Sprint Cup Series championships in a row took it in stride by waving his arms to encourage their aversion.
Fans always have been fickle. When a driver gets too good, they turn against him. They once booed Darrell Wal-trip, Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt when they were in their primes.
Just as everyone expected – and feared – Johnson easily won the all-star race.
After slumping the past two seasons – if you can call a sixth- and third-place overall finishes a slump – Johnson clearly has found his groove again. He leads the current standings by 44 points, which means as long as he doesn’t finish any worse than 40th Sunday in the Coca-Cola 600 he will leave the Charlotte Motor Speedway as the points leader.
Considering his victory last week in the all-star race at Charlotte and six career victories at the home track to the majority of teams in the NASCAR universe, the season is starting to shape up like another Johnson blowout.
And it probably will take more than booing to slow him down.
“I look at it and every time he wins a race I shake my head and I go that’s unbelievable,” Jeff Gordon said.
Johnson already has won stock car’s longest marathon three times. For years, the 1.5-mile raceway was known as “Jimmie’s house” because he also has 15 top-10 finishes in 23 career starts.
His familiar No. 48 Chevrolet will start 12th Sunday. The race starts at 6 p.m. during the hottest part of the afternoon and will finish four hours later under the lights. That means the track surface and race cars will go through a lot of changes.
The team that stays ahead of the changing temperatures and unpredictable track conditions has the best chance to win.
“It’s like we know that we’ve had it so we feel like we can find it again, and we’re knocking on the door,” Johnson said. “But like I was saying earlier, we’re one of three or one of five that can make something happen here now.”
Denny Hamlin, who missed four races last month while recovering from a broken back, won the pole position with a track-record lap of 195.624 mph.
Kurt Busch will start second, while Matt Kenseth is third, Mark Martin is fourth and Clint Bowyer is fifth.
Busch’s Chevrolet will be the only non-Toyota among the top five starters.
Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman round out the top 10 starters.
Johnson started the season with a victory at the Daytona 500. He also won at the Martinsville Speedway. He only has one finish – 22nd at the Bristol Motor Speedway – outside the top 12 in the first 11 races.
Although he’s just 38, Johnson already is third on NASCAR’s list for championships. Only hall of fame drivers Richard Petty and Earnhardt (seven each) have more.
Many already consider him one of the greatest in the sport’s history.
“Wow, I don’t know how to quite respond to that,” Johnson said. “I am honored that they have mentioned me in that way. I just don’t pay that much attention to it all. It’s very difficult to think about where I fit in while I’m still racing.
“I think of driver’s careers ending mid-40s. I still have 10 years or so to even think about that, worry about that.”
Kenseth isn’t so sure. He never got to see Petty or Earnhardt in their prime, but he knows how Johnson’s career numbers stack up against two of the legends.
And it’s impressive.
“People can say whatever they want about him, but I don’t know how you can’t say that he’s not the best ever,” Matt Kenseth said. “You look at what he’s done with Chad [Knaus, crew chief] since they’ve been over here and nobody has ever put up numbers like that. Nobody has ever won five championships in a row and probably never will. They’re amazing.”
For now, the only thing that matters is how good Johnson’s been this year, especially at Charlotte. That’s why a lot of fans probably will boo again during driver introductions Sunday, expecting – if not fearing – another inevitable Johnson victory.