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Jimmie Johnson gets lost in shuffle during greatest-ever discussion

HOMESTEAD — There was a brief moment early Sunday evening, a brief and telling moment, when Jimmie Johnson waited in his car on Turn 2 of the Homestead-Miami Speedway for the victory platform to set up.

His crew chief, Chad Knaus, took this time to say on television how Johnson is the, "most underrated talent in the garage." That seemed strange, considering Johnson just set history by winning his fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup series championship. Underrated?

But that seems Johnson's plight. The conversation is always off-key. Even the question came about him being the greatest driver ever — the kind of topic tossed around easily after four consecutive titles in any sport —was treated like an allergy.

After talking around the subject, veteran driver Jeff Burton allowed, "How in the world can you not put him on the list?"

The list of five? 10? You see, that's how it is with Johnson, the champion everyone respects but not many people feel passionate about. Maybe it's his level personality. Maybe it's his quiet voice.

Waiting there, in Turn 2, Johnson wasn't thinking about being underrated or where he ranked on the greatest list. He let his mind wander. He thought of the start of this journey.

He grew up in a trailer. He drove an old Ford van to his first races. Sitting there, he remembered his four-wheel race, his first dirt-bike race.

"My first stock-car race was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and I was fast, but I didn't know how to pass anyone,'' he said. "I was on the radio saying, 'How do I pass?' and they said, 'We've got the car running,' and you've got to figure how to pass."

He can pass now. He passed Cale Yarborough on Sunday to be the only driver to win four consecutive championships. No one else besides them has more than two in a row. Not Dale Earnhardt. Not Richard Petty.

Johnson knew that. He understands what this moment meant.

"Four in a row, it doesn't matter if you're racing bathtubs or go-carts or playing baseball — it's tough to do,'' he said.

Johnson doesn't inspire the emotion other drivers do, for some reason. But he's not ice. He heats up. Three times in Sunday's race Johnson became upset by other racers and said so over the radio, the last one in the final laps after he let teammate Jeff Gordon pass then felt blocked.

"I let him go,'' he said. "Will he please go somewhere?"

A minute later, he asked Knaus, "Can I catch the leader?"

"No, you cannot," Knaus answered.

"Is that a dare?" Johnson asked.

"No, that's a fact." Knaus said.

So he finished fifth. It didn't matter. He got the big prize, the one he has chased all year.

"I'm hoping I can stay in this sweet spot for a while and keep rolling on," Johnson said.

Greatest ever? Well, that will have to wait. But four consecutive titles was the greatest accomplishment in NASCAR's 61 years, whether he's underrated or not.

Dave Hyde is a sports columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Jimmie Johnson gets lost in shuffle during greatest-ever discussion 11/22/09 [Last modified: Sunday, November 22, 2009 11:47pm]
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