News & Media

Notebook: Johnson No. 1 is no surprise to Hendrick

May 12, 2011, Dave Rodman,

Stewart would like NASCAR to better define 'Boys, have at it' approach to racing

It should be no shock to most sports fans to learn that, according to a poll commissioned by Forbes magazine, three NASCAR drivers were among the most influential of American sports figures -- including two of the top three positions.

While the 2011 Sprint Cup Series season has seen NASCAR beguiled by shortcomings in live attendance and TV viewership, its athletes -- compared to many of the current marquee stick-and-ball players -- are paragons of stability and cleanliness of character and actions.

"I've been very fortunate to have guys like Gordon and Jimmie, who are absolutely no-maintenance -- anything you ask them to do, they'll do it. And Dale and Mark are the same way. I haven't been asked to the hauler in a long time. "


And while five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has left many NASCAR fans less than enamored with his personality, he earned the top rating of all American athletes in Forbes' poll, which was released this week and executed by E-Poll Market Research of Encino, Calif. Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, were third and eighth, respectively, in the rankings.

Johnson rated No. 1 in the poll of 1,000 adults -- with the proviso that the athlete had to be known to at least 20 percent of the respondents, which according to Forbes eliminated the highly-influential boxer Manny Pacquiao, "who scores the highest influence numbers of anyone but who's familiar to only 12 percent of the population."

Johnson's status in the poll that measured influence, likeability and awareness levels -- including endorsements and media exposure -- was no shock to team owner, Rick Hendrick, who ultimately stood up for his entire organization.

"I think people have had to learn to respect him that maybe didn't like him at first," Hendrick said. "I think he was in Jeff's [Gordon] shadow a lot early on -- and now when they see him on HBO or somewhere else on TV, the word gets out. You never hear anybody say anything bad about Jimmie. You might not like him because he's beating you, but you never hear anybody say anything bad about him.

"He races you hard, but never dirty. I think the fans, as they've gotten to know more of him, have learned to respect him even if they don't necessarily claim him as their favorite driver."

Hendrick's assessment of Johnson, specifically, and his four drivers overall, including the veteran Mark Martin, gives some insight into why NASCAR athletes in general are considered positive role models.

"I think the cool thing about [Johnson] is that he doesn't ask for publicity," Hendrick said. "He doesn't need to try to make people think he's the best out there. His deal is that he wants to just get in the car and be the best. He doesn't want to talk about it; he just wants to do it. And he puts a lot of effort into that.

"And what's so different about Jimmie is that he's not always looking to have everything else better, he just wants to make himself better. And he thinks if he's better, he'll elevate the rest of it. So he's a pretty phenomenal guy.

"I'm very, very fortunate to have Jimmie Johnson, I can tell you that. I've been very fortunate to have guys like Gordon and Jimmie, who are absolutely no-maintenance -- anything you ask them to do, they'll do it. And Dale and Mark are the same way. I haven't been asked to the [NASCAR] hauler [to discuss questionable behavior] in a long time.

Have at it, indeed

NASCAR appears to be having its cake and eating it, too, with its current "Boys, have at it" philosophy of racing. Race by race, the boys are finding out just where the limits are.

Fast and furious

Marc Fein and Bill Kimm ponder the possibility of Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick settling their score at Dover as Rowdy joins the Preview Show to discuss racing at the Monster Mile.

The latest to test the temperature of NASCAR's bathwater were Ryan Newman and Juan Montoya, who tangled at Richmond initially, and then in a follow-up meeting at Darlington. And Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, who let some hard racing overflow onto pit road after the race, resulting in penalties this week.

Suffice it to say, as confusing as it can be for the rest of is, not everyone in the garage area is completely comfortable with it, either.

"I'm kinda confused by it, now -- I guess I am waiting for a definition of what is it," Tony Stewart said on Wednesday's Race Hub on SPEED.' "Where do they want us to go with it? Where is the line in the sand? Nobody really has defined what the line in the sand is yet, so none of us really know what we are supposed to do, or what we are allowed to do, what are we not allowed to do, where are we allowed to do it, what's acceptable and not acceptable?

"Trust me, I am 100 percent behind NASCAR has to be the governing body -- they have to be the ones that play referee. But, don't tell us to have at it and then start fining us when nobody really knows where the line is. If we know where the line is, guys probably are not going to go over it quite as much. You have to at least know where that line is, so if you go over it, it doesn't bother you as much [if you get punished]."

Don't expect any great revelations this weekend, despite the fact that Harvick and Busch -- who's doing a Dover triple -- are entered in Dover's Lucas Oil 200 Camping World Truck Series race. I bet it's about a given that if either of them touches the other on Friday, they'll be sitting down for Sunday's Sprint Cup race.

How's that for a line in the sand?

A Long way to Dover debut

Johanna Long will make her Dover debut Friday in the Truck Series and has some help via former series champion Johnny Benson, who's been signed as her driver coach for Dover and Charlotte.

Johanna Long

Career Statistics
YearRankPointsStartWinsTop5Top10Avg. StartAvg. Finish

Long, 18, has kept busy since the last Truck race by preparing for her high school graduation in Pensacola, Fla., and her upcoming move to Charlotte, N.C. She also recently attended her senior prom and her older sister's college graduation.

Barnett leaves her mark on the No. 18

Ten-year-old Olivia Barnett of Dover, Del., has been selected as the winner of the Riding Shotgun With Kyle Busch Motorsports essay contest for the Greater Dover area and her name and picture will adorn a space just above the passenger side window of Busch's No. 18 Toyota for Friday's Truck Series Lucas Oil 200. In addition, Dover International Speedway has provided Barnett and her parents with passes to attend Friday's race.

Barnett, a student at Holy Cross School in Dover had her essay chosen among submissions from children age five-12 in the Greater Dover area. The contest called for children to submit an essay of 150 words or less that described an experience and/or achievement that occurred within the past 12 months and affected their lives in a positive way. Barnett's essay described her experience raising money for young children with leukemia and how it taught her that true happiness comes from giving back to others.

Cope twins pair up in Iowa

Angela and Amber Cope -- the nieces of 1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope -- hope to become the first twins to compete in a Nationwide Series race next weekend at Iowa Speedway.

Depending on the number of entries -- usually averaging between 43-45 cars -- the twins might have a tough row to hoe with their new team, Keystone Motorsports, which will field a No. 93 Ford for Amber while Angela drives the No. 94 Chevrolet.

The pair made history last season by becoming the first twins to race against each other in one of NASCAR's top-three divisions by competing in the Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville.

"They kept their noses clean last year at Martinsville," Derrike Cope said. "They were patient, got some track time and finished 26th [Amber] and 30th [Angela]. They have the talent and need this opportunity."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.