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My Brain on NASCAR - March 29, 2016
Zowie! NASCAR welcomes drivers from Krypton and Gotham City
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I like a good trend as much as the next girl, but this superhero thing is starting to confuse me.

When did there get to be so many? Batman and Superman are usually the first names that come to mind, along with Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk … and that’s just for starters. Wonder Woman is an obvious favorite because, well, she’s Wonder Woman. When admirers compliment her on her killer accessories, like that combination tiara/boomerang gadget, they’re being literal. It’s a killer.

Like it or not, it is now Marvel’s world, or maybe it belongs to DC Comics. I don’t really know the difference, but those two franchises seem to own their world and the rest of us just live in it. Between the two, they probably boast a population larger than America itself, and we’re pretty big.

Someone did me a very good turn recently, prompting me to end my thank-you note with the words, "my hero."

A couple of days later I was watching the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and heard someone refer to Jimmie Johnson, who won the event, as a hero. This set me to thinking about what it really means to be a hero in this confusing world that we’re all doing our best to muddle through.

What defines a hero?

A hero is someone who is transformed from ordinary to extraordinary by chance, or by circumstance.

What it really boils down to is a hero is usually someone with a good heart, good intentions and good aim, who through his actions becomes the object of others’ admiration.

Johnson, whose victory at Fontana moved him up to sixth on NASCAR’s all-time win list, was practically begging for superhero comparisons. His No. 48 Chevy sported a Superman-themed paint scheme for the race, part of the promotional campaign for the upcoming blockbuster movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was driving the corresponding Batman-themed car, so yes, the Batmobile was literally in the race.

Who do you root for when both combatants are good guys? Batman is edgier and has the cool gadgets, but Superman can fly and isn’t afraid to wear spandex in public, which believe me, is very brave. He is the epitome of the all-American boy, except for the fact he’s an alien. But he lives here on Earth now, so I guess we’ve accepted him within our borders, pending the approval of Mr. Trump.

Throughout his stellar career, Jimmie Johnson has for the most part avoided controversy. The biggest complaint about him is the fact he just wins too doggone much. That’s true, but he doesn’t accomplish it by habitually knocking other drivers out of the way. He just quietly shows up on race day with a ton of driving talent, a faster car and a better crew than the other guys. What a concept.

Johnson does a lot of media interviews, but he doesn’t use the time to trash NASCAR or his fellow competitors. He just thanks his sponsors and talks about the race. He is often rewarded for his hard work and accomplishments by being referred to as boring, or bland.

This is not a new phenomenon. Flashier competitors with higher popularity ratings have eclipsed other athletes -- really great ones -- throughout the course of history. Pete Sampras held the record for Grand Slam men’s tennis singles titles for years, but was always overshadowed by rival Andre Agassi, although Sampras won 20 of the 32 matches they played.

Roger Maris was the first baseball player to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, but all the fans were rooting for Mickey Mantle that year, and some actually booed Maris’ historic achievement.

It seems important to note the Olympic diver who makes no perceptible splash is usually the one who goes home with the gold.

He may be viewed as being overly glib in his interviews, or just too non-controversial in general to suit the personal preferences of some, but let’s not rush to dismiss Jimmie Johnson as nothing more than a modern-day, mild-mannered Clark Kent. There’s a fun guy lurking in there. He actually showed up for his post-race press conference in California wearing, of all things, a flowing red Superman cape.

"More than anything, I just wanted to beat the 88 so I had bragging rights over Junior all week," he said. "Then we won the race. (Earnhardt finished 11th.) So I think I got the upper hand on him for a little bit. I don’t expect it to last for long."

So far the Caped Crusader’s PR department has issued no official response, but when the next race rolls around April 3 at Martinsville Speedway, I’ll be keeping an eye on the sky in case a certain bat-shaped signal happens to appear.

I expect the Man of Steel might be doing the same.

(Cathy Elliott is the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway and author of the books Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR and Darlington Raceway: Too Tough To Tame. Contact her at Her column, My Brain on NASCAR, is made available through the S.C. News Exchange to the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C.)