Driving Today

Sports Illustrated Curse Hits Johnson

First, Jimmie Johnson hits wall; then, he hits resistance to his criticism of IndyCar.

Last week, I opined that defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson would avoid the curse that has traditionally dogged athletes who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. Well, I’m here to tell you today that, sadly, Johnson was not able to avoid the dreaded curse, despite the continued support of my wife who heretofore has been the driver’s good luck charm. First, he had a disastrous result in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Then, in the aftermath of the Dan Wheldon tragedy in IndyCar, he got himself embroiled in a controversy by suggesting that IndyCar racecars shouldn’t run on ovals. (Ahem, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an oval.)

Let’s look at the crash at Charlotte first, because it might well have thrown the five-time defending champ out of contention for a sixth straight title. Johnson was in a comfortable seventh position with 17 laps left in the race when his car made contact with Ryan Newman’s. Within a split second, Johnson’s No. 48 car crashed nose-first into the wall. At the speed the cars were traveling, it was a hard hit that could have been life-threatening. Happily, Johnson was unhurt, but his Sprint Cup championship hopes were not so lucky. Instead of finishing in the top 10, the crash dropped him all the way to 34th place in the race and left him in eighth place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- a virtually impossible position.

The crash was the result of bad racing luck, and one can make the case that good racing luck has been on Johnson’s side for five years straight, so perhaps it’s time for him to see the worm turn. Or one can simply attribute the crash to the SI curse. His comments on the IndyCar series are even more difficult to figure out.

In the wake of the tragic accident at Las Vegas that killed Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon, Johnson was quoted as saying that IndyCar racecars should not be running on oval tracks. He expressed the opinion that IndyCars are not safe on ovals and that the series should run strictly on street circuits and road courses. This brought immediate derision from IndyCar stalwarts, who felt like Johnson was kicking the series when it was at its lowest point in a decade. A.J. Foyt, who has been known to put his foot in it at times himself, characterized Johnson’s statements as “stupid.” Open-wheel racing legend Mario Andretti, a driver for whom we have nothing but the highest regard, also criticized what Johnson had said, but then called the NASCAR driver to discuss the situation. After the talk with Andretti, who has championed racing safety for decades, Johnson amended his comments to say he was referring to high-banked ovals like the track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, not other tracks.

In any case, it was a bad week for Johnson -- probably the worst he’s had in five years. One has to ask: Was it just coincidence, or was it the result of the Sports Illustrated cover curse?



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