NASCAR is different from every other professional sport in that it's both an individual and a team sport. A great driver won't be very good with a mediocre team, and vice versa.
Jimmie Johnson is a very good driver. No one can argue that point. What makes him great, though, is the rare connection he has with his team, something few drivers ever experience for longer than a few races or maybe one season.
It's not just Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. It's Johnson's ability to tell Knaus what he needs in the car and the chief's ability to make it happen.
It's not automatic for a driver to tell his crew chief that his car is tight and it get fixed right away. Some teams need all race to get a car right. The difference with the 48 is that it rarely takes more than two adjustments to get it good.
Such comfort breeds the kind of confidence that allows the 48 to cruise through the regular season and put things in a higher gear in the Chase. It's no magical formula the team has invented. It's just complete confidence one has in another to make the right decisions.
Meanwhile, the court of popular opinion on Johnson and his titles reveals they are somehow bad for the sport. Jeff Gordon faced the same type of thing, but Dale Earnhardt didn't. Is it the men, or the era? Are fans different now?
The guess here is both. The NASCAR fan base was smaller when the Intimidator was winning titles, yet those fans were more passionate. There wasn't a glut of television shows, Internet reports and commercials featuring teams and drivers.
Fans had their favorite drivers, they had their favorite manufacturer and they had their favorite tracks. Earnhardt's gruff personality (he didn't become a media darling until late in his career), his rough driving style and the relative simplicity of the sport helped create a legend. No matter how much he won, the only complaints came from Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty, Rusty Wallace or Ford fans.
Johnson, much like his mentor Gordon, isn't gruff, rough or Southern. He's articulate and polished and would rather use his driving ability than his bumper to beat people. He's called vanilla, a robot, a product of the Hendrick system.
Johnson, who has tried to let his hair down (not to mention his recently departed beard) to appeal to more fans, is taking this the best way he can -- by realizing there's not much he can do to change it except start losing. That, no doubt, is something he won't try.
"I mean, I guess I don't understand why people would have a problem with it," Johnson said. "Everybody tunes in to watch Tiger (Woods) win. Everybody tunes in to watch (Roger) Federer do his thing on certain courts. I'm just doing my thing. I think there's a lot of fans out there that are excited to see what this 48 car is doing, and a lot of people are happy and rooting for us to win a fourth. The rest of them ... oh, well."
The fact he's dominating in a system designed to keep a team from doing just that makes his runs even more remarkable. Someday, more people will realize it.
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...