Has Jimmie Johnson replaced Jeff Gordon as NASCAR's most hated driver?clock

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Has Jimmie Johnson replaced Jeff Gordon as NASCAR's most hated driver?clock
(Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images for NASCAR)

He's won three championships in a decade, he races for one of the most successful teams in NASCAR, and he has an avid fan following.

No, I'm not talking about Wonder Boy, Jeff Gordon. I'm talking about Jimmie Johnson and his status at the top of NASCAR's echelon.

Ever since Gordon's first season in 1993, he has been a hated man. Most of this is simply due to one man's dominance of a sport in which most fans appreciate a little more variety.

But some will tell you that in addition to this dominance, they don't like Gordon because his success came too quickly and they weren't expecting or prepared for it.

By the end of the 1998 season, Gordon tied the legendary Richard Petty for single season wins with thirteen and cruised to his third Cup Championship.

Petty's records of 200 wins and 7 Cup Championships suddenly seemed like they were in serious doubt.

Not bad for a 26-year-old California kid.

That's right, therein lied the third leg of the equation: Gordon was, at the time, one of the few non-Southern drivers and fans hated him for it.

In a sport that has since gone nationwide with multi-million dollar television deals, native Californians like Gordon and his teammate Jimmie Johnson comprise a greater percentage of the NASCAR circuit than native-born Southerners.

For many, this as a problem.

Former Lowe's Motor Speedway President H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler famously once asked "Are we Merlot or are we moonshine?" when faced with NASCAR's identity problem.

If you believe those at Western tracks like Auto Club Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, or Infineon Raceway, they would tell you Merlot.

But if you ask those fans at traditional tracks like Darlington Raceway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, and Martinsville Speedway, they 'll give you a different perspective.

For years, Gordon and spearheaded this new identity effort.

Or sure, we've had other non-Southern drivers like Johnny Mantz, Tim "Hollywood" Richmond, and others. But no one garnered animosity quite like Gordon.

This may be because he has dominated NASCAR for over 15 years, something the former drivers could never accomplish.

Now, after only seven years on NASCAR's premier circuit, Jimmie Johnson has emerged as that next great driver fans love to hate, along with the arrogant Kyle Busch.

Johnson has already tainted history by tying another NASCAR legend, Cale Yarborough, as the only drivers to win three consecutive Cup Championships.

Mix in the fact that Yarborough hails from South Carolina and you've got a recipe for more disgruntled traditionalists among NASCAR's base. Should Johnson actually break the record, his vilification will only increase.

Like Gordon before him, Johnson has seen success come quickly, having amassed nearly half of Gordon's career win total of 81 race victories with 40 of his own.

Consider that 17 of those came in the past 18 months, with his Chase dominance to boot, and you've got all the more reason for fans to be screaming foul.

Sunday, Gordon goes for his eighth career win at Martinsville, meaning he'll be trying to take home his series-leading eighth grandfather clock.

If you've noticed, much of the fan reaction in the nearly year-and-a-half since his last win (October, 2007) has apparently changed.

Why?

According to message boards I've read, many people are slowly realizing that as Gordon goes, so goes the last shred of NASCAR tradition, which for so many years he ironically opposed.

Fans realize that the day Gordon retireswhich, at the age of 37 could be sooner than later—many of their earlier and fiercer memories will go with him.

In a sport that seems to be changing every day at the expense of tradition and history, Gordon now remains a staple to which they can relate.

The man that started the hate it all has come full circle.

Fans realize that he's their link to the past, most notably his rivalries with Dale Earnhardt Sr., Rusty Wallace, and Dale Jarrett, none of whom are left the circuit.

After all, it was Earnhardt who gave him the nickname "Wonder Boy," owing to his racing style and ability to defy driving logic with his skill.

You have to wonder how many fans out there today will secretly be pulling for Gordon to conjure some old magic at a place he's dominated for much of this generation.

Simply for nostalgia sake.

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