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Jimmie Johnson is on the verge of his fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, but where's the love?

For four years, his peers have been no match. For that matter, neither has history.

He has been dominant, he has been consistent, he has been a shatterer of records. He has been squeaky clean, he has been polite, and he has stayed out of controversy's way.

So here is what I'm wondering:

Why don't you love Jimmie Johnson?

As a nation of sports fans, we adore the idea of dynasties. We put Tiger Woods on a pedestal. We can't wait for the next Lance Armstrong tweet. Six hundred years later, we're still buying Ming's vases.

Yet Johnson is just another guy in a Chevy. It doesn't matter that he is about to make history this weekend as the first NASCAR driver to win four consecutive Cup titles. He's still not in the conversation of the world's most prominent athletes. He's not even as well-known as a certain IndyCar driver with one victory on her resume. Or a second-generation stock-car driver with one victory in the past three years.

And you can't say it's because NASCAR is a niche sport. Cycling is about as niche as it gets, and the whole world knows Armstrong. Tennis barely has a heartbeat, and Roger Federer is a much bigger celebrity.

Yet, somehow, Johnson has fallen between the cracks.

Oh, he shows up in the odd commercial. He's traded stale quips with Regis and Kelly. He's hired Hollywood agencies and publicists to further his profile and endorsement opportunities. Still, his Q rating lags far behind his racing prowess.

It could be because he's not the most dynamic personality on your TV screen. Of course, a complete lack of discernible emotion hasn't hurt Federer's popularity.

It could be because Johnson doesn't fit the NASCAR profile of country music, Southern accents and hangovers. Then again, neither does Jeff Gordon, and he's far more famous than his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

It could be because, as his accomplishments have grown, NASCAR's relevance has taken a hit. Or because he's not a daredevil on the track. Or because no one has come close to filling the role of a legitimate rival.

It could be any of, or all, those reasons, but the result remains the same. And that's a shame, because what Johnson has accomplished the past four seasons has been unprecedented in NASCAR.

Johnson need finish only in the top 25 at the season finale in Homestead on Sunday to clinch his fourth consecutive Sprint Cup championship. No one — not Gordon, not Dale Earnhardt, not Richard Petty — has ruled the sport for four seasons.

As accomplishments go, this should not be easily dismissed. It is not a fluke, it is not a hot streak, it is not a minor snapshot in time. It means Johnson has been the best NASCAR has had to offer over an extended period.

Still, there are those who feel the need to belittle Johnson's achievements. They point out the convenience of NASCAR's first four-year winning streak coming so soon after the sport introduced the 10-race Chase for the Championship playoff system.

And, yes, there is some merit to the idea that the rules have changed. If the old points system had been in place in 2007, Johnson would have finished far behind Gordon. If it had been in place last season, Carl Edwards would have barely finished ahead of him.

The problem is that people who dismiss Johnson's Chase successes do not give enough credit to how he has exploited the system. He has been absolutely phenomenal in Chase events, finishing first or second in 20 of the 39 races in the past four years.

But it's not like he is taking a cheap route to victory. Johnson has gone into the postseason portion of the schedule in second, fourth, third and third place the past four seasons. He's also winning races at a clip not seen in this generation.

With 47 career victories in 290 races, Johnson has won 16.2 percent of his starts. Among drivers with at least 45 victories, only Herb Thomas (21 percent from 1949-62), David Pearson (18.2 percent from 1960-86) and Richard Petty (16.8 percent from 1958-92) have been better.

Does that mean Johnson is a greater driver than Earnhardt Sr.? Than Gordon or Bobby Allison or Cale Yarborough or Darrell Waltrip? Not necessarily. But it does mean he deserves a place in the conversation.

It means we should probably take the time to applaud when he crosses another finish line on Sunday.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

. Fast facts

Much more than points

Jimmie Johnson is not just a points machine. Along with winning four consecutive Sprint Cup titles, he has also won twice as many races as any NASCAR driver in the past four seasons.

DriverWins

Jimmie Johnson29

Kyle Busch14

Tony Stewart13

Carl Edwards12

Kasey Kahne10

Jeff Gordon9

Matt Kenseth8

Jimmie Johnson is on the verge of his fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, but where's the love? 11/18/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 19, 2009 1:04am]
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