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Johnson still a top NASCAR ambassador

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Jeff Hammond

Jeff Hammond is a former NASCAR crew chief who led Darrell Waltrip to two of his three Sprint Cup championships. The duo also teamed up to win the 1989 Daytona 500. Prior to that, Hammond was the jackman for Cale Yarborough for all three of his Cup championships. He has 43 Sprint Cup wins as a crew chief. Follow him on Twitter.

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Everywhere I go these days, race fans are asking me, “What’s wrong with the No. 48?”

My response is always the same: There is nothing wrong with Jimmie Johnson and the the No. 48 team. It’s just a reality that his string of consecutive championships had to end sometime.

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Let’s face it, the five-time defending Sprint Cup champion is human. So is his car owner, his crew chief and the entire team. There simply comes a time when someone takes you down. Right now with three races to go, 2011 seems to be that year for Johnson.

I speak from personal experience. I was on Cale Yarborough’s team that won what was then thought an unbreakable streak of three consecutive championships. Then when Cale left and Darrell Waltrip came in, we were bulletproof in 1981 and 1982. We won 24 races, 18 poles and two championships in just those two years. So why should we expect 1983 to be any different?

The thing is, it was definitely different.

We started off at Daytona in 1983 and almost lost Darrell to a bad crash. The championship season just never materialized. DW will tell you to this day that while he drove and finished the next two races, he can’t tell you a thing about them. That’s how messed up he was. Sure, we won six races that year, but the championship season never really materialized.

Sit back and think about the fact that Jimmie Johnson and that No. 48 team have done it for five years straight. To me, he did it two years longer than I actually thought he would. The bottom line, though, again is it was inevitable. I don’t care if you were the Boston Celtics, the New York Yankees, the New England Patriots or whomever — championships are tough to continue to win.

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Listen to the comments that past champions like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch are saying. They make it clear it’s not easy to win a single championship, let alone multiple ones. The stars all have to line up perfectly, and the Racing Gods have to smile on you. I’ve heard comments this week that maybe the No. 48 team has used up all its luck. That’s probably not far from the truth.

The old cliché of “all good things must come to an end” really applies in this case. What bothers me the most is about half the folks in the racing community are going to be very happy that he is no longer our champion. I think that is sad. Jimmie Johnson is a class act, and I still believe he hasn’t yet gotten the attention or accolades he deserves for his unbelievable accomplishment in NASCAR Sprint Cup history. He also has been an unbelievable ambassador for our sport.

Some folks are trying to make a lot of the supposed tension on the team, whether it’s between Jimmie and crew chief Chad Knaus or the team and Chad. All that is are hard-nosed competitors not wanting to give up what they have. That bunch has been at the top of the mountain for five straight years, and they really have enjoyed the view. People don’t like to lose. Couple that frustration — and the realization that a chance at six straight championships is slipping away — with a really long season, and sure, there is going to be tension.

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Now I’ve been there, so trust me when I tell you that the hardest thing Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are getting ready to experience is the NASCAR awards banquet, when they are back among everyone else in the audience. They will sit there and listen to all the accolades placed on the new champion and his team. It hurts, believe me, it does. To put it even more bluntly, it really sucks.

There is nothing any better than winning a championship, but there’s also nothing that hurts worse than coming close but losing one. All the attention that was once all on you is gone. The spotlight is now on the new champion. Initially you will try to rationalize it and say it will be a good thing to be out of the spotlight. That evaporates the minute you realize you miss it and miss it desperately.

Tagged: Jimmie Johnson

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