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Jimmie shrugged. "Well," he said, "I had my eyes closed."
The Vanilla Thing . That's what Jimmie Johnson calls it. He has spent too many hours thinking about it. How could people see him as vanilla? He grew up in a trailer park. He jumped motorbikes and motorcycles, flipped off-road vehicles in the desert, drove trucks and hot rods and buggies. He tempted fate at every stage of his life. He worked his way up in the most American way, using his charm and talent and making friends. Now, at 34, he drives in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series—"200 miles per hour with 40 other maniacs," as Rick Johnson describes it—and nobody in the series drives better. Jimmie Johnson has won three Sprint Cup championships in a row, and with a 184-point lead after seven Chase races this year, he's on course to win his fourth straight, something no one has ever done.
Jimmie Johnson has won 40 Cup races over the last six years, more than have been won by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin. Combined. Also more than Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon combined. As Gordon says, "No one is even close." Or as Martin says, "He's Superman." And it grows more apparent, year after year, victory after victory, championship after championship, that no one who has climbed into a stock car—not the good ol' boys or the moonshiners, not the intimidators or the kings, not the fireballs or the silver foxes or the men named Cale—has ever driven it better than Jimmie Johnson.
Isn't this the American Dream come to life? Well, isn't it? Poor kid makes good. Thrill-seeker testing the limits. Jimmie Johnson can't help but see it that way. And still: the Vanilla Thing. He knows he bores people. He hears the boos that have followed him in his career. He catches the groans from the racing writers when he walks into the pressroom. He could not help but notice that before the season began, those racing writers—a bit too enthusiastically, perhaps—named Carl Edwards the favorite to win the championship this year. Carl Edwards? Johnson had won three in a row. How could he not be the favorite? But he knows: It's the Vanilla Thing.
"Go stand next to your refrigerator, it's more quotable than Jimmie Johnson." That was a line in what was actually a positive story in The Tampa Tribune.
"The dude is more consistent than Wonder Bread—and about as colorful." That was the review in the Orlando Sentinel.
"It's hard to find NASCAR fans who admit they love Jimmie Johnson." That was the lead for a story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
"If Jimmie would just get out of the race car and just slap someone one time," NASCAR pitchman and track owner Bruton Smith announced, "that would help a lot."
Johnson says he won't think about the Vanilla Thing anymore—he can't think about it, he has races to win—but he can't quite let it go, either. People seem mad at him because he's not ... well, what? He's not Junior Johnson, Wolfe's Last American Hero, the moonshiner driving the dirt roads through the night like a demon. He's not Dale Earnhardt Sr., the man in black, his hard look frozen in other drivers' rearview mirrors, the look that said, "Get out of my way, or I'll run you into a wall." He's not Cale Yarborough, the only other man who's won three straight Cup championships, Cale, who wrestled alligators and boxed in the Golden Gloves and took on both the Allison brothers in a brawl in the infield at Daytona. He's not Richard Petty, the King, magnanimous, irrepressible, 200 victories, always in his cowboy hat and sunglasses, speaking in that friendly Southern accent that never left Level Cross, N.C.
No, he's plain old Jimmie Johnson, adrift in a sea of similarly named sportsmen—the brash football coach who led the Cowboys to dominance (Jimmy Johnson), the Hall of Fame cornerback (Jimmy Johnson), the Northwestern quarterback who made the College Football Hall of Fame (Jimmy Johnson), the NFL tight end (Jimmie Johnson), the late defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles (Jim Johnson), the relief pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles (Jim Johnson) and the onetime East Carolina football coach (Jim Johnson), not to mention a couple of hockey players named Jim Johnson.