My Brain On NASCAR: Johnson blows engine but not his cool

At Michigan International Speedway (MIS) on Sunday, Jimmie Johnson did something so shocking, so unthinkable, that radio call-in shows, the Internet, and even some respected print publications have been literally crackling with outrage ever since.

While leading the race with only six laps remaining, Johnson’s engine gave up the ghost. He subsequently exited the car, and the entire track, without talking to the media. The prevailing sentiment regarding that decision seems to be, “How dare he?”

I have a different question: Why do I so frequently find myself in the position of defending Jimmie Johnson?

It certainly isn’t because he needs my help. Johnson has won more NASCAR Sprint Cup Series titles than you can count; well, OK, he’s won five, if we’re splitting hairs, but that’s a lot. And not only did he win those championships, but he did it in consecutive seasons, which is unprecedented in NASCAR.

JJ personifies all the positive catchphrases and buzzwords folks like to toss around, things like “great ambassador for the sport,” “consummate professional” and “future Hall-of-Famer.” He is movie-star handsome and articulate, with a beautiful wife and daughter. He has a plum ride at Hendrick Motorsports, and his sponsorship deal with Lowe’s is one of the most solid in the sport. If you believe everything you hear – and don’t we all? – Jeff Gordon, a true racing legend, is his best friend.

Talk about living the dream; from the outside looking in, Jimmie Johnson truly is the total package, the American success story we all wish we could experience, even for just a little while.

So what’s with all the nitpicking?

Nitpicking, by the strict letter of the language, is the task of removing the tiny eggs of lice, called nits, from someone’s hair and clothing, a tedious activity that requires close attention and care. In order to find and ferret out the nasty little rascals, you really have to look hard and dig deep. No one does this for fun; it is simply too tiresome.

In sports, bad behavior is too often considered a good thing. Like that three-letter word that starts with “S” and ends with “X,” it sells. We like it, and want to see more of it.

Let’s go ahead and admit it. After the August 12 race at Watkins Glen, when Kyle Busch wrecked on the final lap thanks to some invisible oil and then stalked off with the demeanor of a violently-shaken can of Coke, we were on the edges of our seats. American TV viewers were just waiting for that first reporter to pop the question so Kyle, who is known for his volatility, could blow his top.

He didn’t do it. We felt robbed.

We got a second chance at Michigan. Even better than watching someone known for his fiery temper let it fly is watching someone known for his composure completely lose it. When Jimmie Johnson walked away from his defunct Chevy without even removing his helmet, we were once again on the edges of our seats. He had just relinquished the points lead and would surely melt down before our eyes.

He didn’t do it. We felt robbed.

It is important to note that NASCAR holds finishers two through five on pit road to talk to the media after each race, while the winner heads to Victory Lane to celebrate. Everyone else is free to leave. Johnson, who posted a 27th-place finish at Michigan, was under no obligation to talk with anyone, or even to remain on the property. His day was done.

When did doing the right thing become the wrong thing to do? It is a sorry state of affairs when, of the man who apparently feels that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all, many people have nothing nice to say.

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