LONG POND — Maybe this run back to the top of the NASCAR world won’t convince people like Donovan McNabb of Jimmy Johnson’s impressive athleticism.
But it sure has the rest of Johnson’s racing peers raving.
“It didn’t surprise me he won those two races,” current points standings leader Matt Kenseth said of the Sprint Cup Series’ past two weekends. “And it wouldn’t surprise me if he won this weekend. Certainly, when you win back-to-back, there’s a sense of accomplishment.”
But is there a sense of superior athletic accomplishment around the sports world?
McNabb says no.
The former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback specifically questioned Johnson’s athletic ability during a Fox Sports Live show discussing the greatest athletes of all time last Nov. 18, just before Johnson won his sixth NASCAR championship.
“You’ve got to give him a little credit. Do I think he’s an athlete? Absolutely not,” McNabb said on the show.
Pressed on that belief by a panel including former tennis player Andy Roddick, McNabb didn’t recoil.
“He’s not an athlete,” said McNabb, who ranked Johnson third on his list of greatest current athletes behind Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant. “No, he sits in a car and drives. That doesn’t make you an athlete. I give credit for what he’s been able to do. So you look at the list, for me, with Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Derek Jeter, you’re talking about Tom Brady … I didn’t say it’s (auto racing’s) not a sport, I’m saying he’s not athletic. No, what athletically is he doing? Elite talent, yes. Elite talent, absolutely.”
The conversation changed only slightly when Johnson gave McNabb a call.
“We talked on the phone shortly after,” Johnson said just before qualifying Friday for Sunday’s Pocono 400. “On the phone he said he didn’t single me out. And I said, `Well, actually, you did. You said I wasn’t an athlete.’ He said, ‘Well, Ok,’ and kind of got lost in the small talk after that one.”
McNabb held firm to that mindset, Johnson said, when the former NFL quarterback who lost four NFC championship games and the Super Bowl when the Eagles advanced to the most pressure-packed games of the playoffs during his Philadelphia tenure came out to Auto Club Speedway for a visit earlier this year.
“When he was at Auto Club, he still was very strong in his stance,” Johnson said of McNabb, “and believes that race car drivers are not athletes.”
Johnson obviously believes differently.
Shortly after McNabb’s conversation caused an uproar in the NASCAR world last season, Johnson said, “Yes, I am an athlete and so is every other driver in one of these race cars.
“Even Tony Stewart.”
That last line was a little joke about two-time NASCAR champion Stewart, who was laid up with a broken leg at the time.
But the way this season started for Johnson was no laughing matter.
He was winless until starting on the pole and finishing first at Charlotte on May 25, then roared into Victory Lane again last Sunday at Dover.
“I think all the talk about Jimmie finally winning, I don’t think he was worried about his job,” Kenseth said. “And I don’t think anybody said, ‘Jimmie’s not winning, he’s finally done.’
“It was, what, 10 races?”
But in Johnson’s world, which includes plenty of big wins on championship Sundays, that counts as a drought. After all, he’s won back-to-back NASCAR races six times while pushing for his third straight win for the first time since rattling off four in a row in 2007.
“Man, I had no clue we were in position that many times,” said Johnson, who has won three times at Pocono and may have made it number four with a season sweep at the track last August before a blown tire shredded his dominant day and sent him to a 13th-place finish. “I don’t pay attention to much, I guess. I know that we had some great runs and usually when we are hot, it carries from track to track. Certainly hope we can keep it rolling.”
Just like any criticism of his athleticism seems to roll off his back as his focus on another championship of his sport races ahead.
“It’s a new year and a new rules package,” Johnson said, “so we have to work on that and hopefully have what we need here. The thing that brings a lot of optimism to our team is this is (crew chief) Chad’s (Knaus’) favorite race track. He loves the challenge here or trying to figure out how to get the car to go down those long straightaways and then through three different corners.
“We’re excited and looking forward to it.”