DOVER, Del. - Nextel Cup driver Jimmie Johnson will stand just offstage at Dover International Speedway this afternoon, waiting for his name to be called during pre-race introductions and steel himself against what he knows will come.
"Driving the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet, Jimmie Johnson," the track announcer will intone.
The boos will surely cascade from grandstands filled with more than 100,000 racing fans, just as they have for weeks now, and fill his ears as he walks onstage, smiling, waving.
"I don't claim to be a bad guy, nor do I try to be the one the fans don't like," Johnson said during an interview before the MBNA RacePoints 400. "In our sport, you have so many people watching ... and everybody has an opinion and everybody is entitled to an opinion. ... It's an intense sport. They threw a few beer cans at me in Charlotte [last week], but that's OK. As long as I have the respect of the people in the garage area, that's all that matters. And it's there. It's always been there."
Johnson, like his teammate, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, is one of the least likely drivers in the sport to be cast in the role of bad guy.
Both are polite, respectful and very, very good at their jobs. But when Gordon, who grew up racing open-wheel cars, came to stock car racing and began beating the late seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt and other longtime competitors, it soon became apparent Gordon was too smooth and too successful too fast. Fans started booing and the signs went up - "Anyone but Gordon."
Johnson, a Californian who found success in off-road racing before turning to stock cars, has been the Cup series runner-up for two straight years. Last season, he led everyone with eight wins. He currently leads the Nextel Cup points race and will start on the pole today. Last week's win in the Coca-Cola 600 made him the first driver in history to win three straight 600s. It was also his 16th career win in 123 races - one more win in 72 fewer races than his much-loved peer, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But what seemed to finally push the fans over the edge was not Johnson's driving success but back-to-back weekend tangles with Tony Stewart and Jeff Burton in Phoenix, Ariz., and Talladega, Ala. The boos have increased since.
Close and competitive
"It's easy to say people are being too aggressive, but the competition is so close now it's almost impossible to pass people," said Johnson, explaining the mishaps. "We have to race that hard to be competitive."
And Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, disagrees with the assessment of the booing. He thinks it just reached the tipping point.
"I think it's because he has done exceptionally well," Knaus said. "Fans are very fickle. They change who they hate as often as they change their pants. ... No one likes a winner for very long. Sooner or later people get tired of hearing your name and seeing your face. I think as long as we keep winning, people will keep booing. As far I'm concerned, they can just boo the heck out of us."
But fans and drivers get incredibly irate when one driver touches another and causes on-track trouble, especially when the driver making first contact is perceived to be one of the most talented out there.
A year ago, Stewart was the bad guy, as he was viewed to be the driver who caused a series of wrecks. It happens often. Last weekend in Charlotte, N.C., Earn- hardt's impatience led to a move that crashed his teammate, Michael Waltrip, and sparked anger between the two crews.
A similar situation developed during another lap in that accident-filled race when rookie Carl Edwards bump-drafted Dale Jarrett. Jarrett took exception to the maneuver designed primarily for superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega, where one car hits the back bumper of the car in front of it hard enough to boost its speed for a pass.
This weekend, Jarrett was still angry, and Edwards no doubt will hear boos from Jarrett fans.
"I tried to speak to Dale after that race, and he wouldn't speak to me in a normal manner," Edwards said. "I tried to bump-draft him down the back straightaway and he flipped out and got really upset. I think that's a little irrational in light of the fact that he crashed me at Martinsville and ruined my day. He apologized, I accepted it and didn't say another word. I think his reaction is out of line. I think a lot of these guys, to me, that's whining. ... I really, to be honest with you, [couldn't] care less whether [Jarrett] is upset."
But Johnson cares about how others feel about him. He is not made like the late Dale Earnhardt, who relished being the man in the black hat. Nor is he like Stewart or even Kevin Harvick, who embrace something of the bad-guy image.
"Some people have that in them," Johnson said. "Earnhardt Sr. was special and Harvick and Stewart, people back them into a corner and they look forward to stepping up. They do that real well. We've been able to bail ourselves out a few times, but ... I think the negativity has hurt the team.
"I don't work well in that environment. But Kevin and Tony, come on, paint them into a corner. They can't wait."
Johnson went out of his way to talk about his relationships with the men he has had run-ins with - on Harvick at the start of the season in Daytona: "He and I talked it through"; on Burton at Talladega: "We've sorted it out. It looked a lot worse in the press and on TV, but we sorted it out between us."
And on Stewart at Phoenix: "Tony and I, he's cooking me pizzas in his bus the week after Phoenix. ... Everything's fine, but the momentum is building off me being the bad guy.
"Things happen and comments are made. I see those guys and they laugh about it, think it's funny, apologize that it's taken on the form that it has. But I can't stop that momentum that's going on in people's opinions. ... It made me stronger in realizing that the respect I have in the garage area and the respect I have with other drivers - that's what I really have to focus on."
Despite the controversy, Johnson said the sales of his memorabilia are up from seventh to third, behind only Earnhardt and Gordon.
"It's a hard dynamic to understand," he said. "But all my indicators are showing everything's fine. Hopefully, by the way I handled things, with professionalism, I made some new fans."