NASCAR

Time to give Jimmie Johnson his due

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When Jimmie Johnson captured his fourth straight NASCAR Cup championship Sunday, it wasn't widely celebrated by the vast majority of NASCAR Nation. In fact, many fans have been disgruntled most of the season over the prospects of the bland Johnson winning a fourth straight title, of his sucking the very life out of another Chase for the Sprint Cup. Johnson and his vanilla personality don't exactly mesmerize or polarize fans, making him one of the least appealing successful drivers in the sport (Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal recently reported that Johnson is 13th among all race-car drivers in public awareness). Many fans, in fact, are ambivalent toward him, which is almost worse than being widely hated. So his fourth straight title has gone over like a lead balloon among a fickle fan base that seems to complain about everything these days, including Johnson's dominance the past four years. But it's time for NASCAR fans to suck it up, lay their intense loyalties and apathy aside and applaud Johnson for one of the most impressive accomplishments in the history of the sport. The four straight titles by Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports team rivals some of the greatest championship runs in professional sports, surpassing the Steelers, Cowboys and 49ers of the National Football League and putting the No. 48 team in a class with the Yankees, Celtics and Canadiens across all pro sports.

Individually, Johnson's reign puts him among some of the greatest athletes of this generation — in a category with such legendary names as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, players who dominated their sports. In NASCAR, Johnson's four straight championships are even more impressive than the seven Cup titles won by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt — a record that he also may tie and, possibly, surpass in the next four or five years. What Johnson has done is simply dominate the most competitive era in NASCAR history, making him not only the greatest driver of the past decade, but also one of the greatest of all time. His 47 wins and four titles in just eight years put him in the same company as Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. And though he hasn't won as many races as any of them — yet — he has accumulated those stats in fewer years and in a tougher era. For the past four decades, the seven titles won by Petty and Earnhardt have stood as the most impressive feats in the sport. But neither faced the competition and the obstacles that Johnson has faced.

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Petty won all seven of his titles in seasons when only a handful of teams ran enough races to contend for the championship. When he won his first title in 1964, only one other driver — Pearson — ran the same number of races. When he won a remarkable 27 races in 1967, including 10 in a row, no one ran as many races as Petty (48), who beat winless James Hylton in the points standings. In '71, only four drivers ran as many events as Petty, and none of them won. Even in the early years of the modern era, beginning in 1972, only a handful of drivers ran all the races. The only title Petty won when he was truly challenged was in 1979, when he edged Waltrip, Allison and Yarborough for his final championship. Earnhardt faced stiffer competition, but even in the 1980s, when he won three titles, the fields weren't as deep. He beat drivers like Waltrip, Tim Richmond, Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace, but behind them, the competition wasn't as fierce. That all changed in the 1990s, when Jeff Gordon arrived, opening the door for a slew of new, young talent to follow him. Gordon quickly became the sport's dominant driver, winning four titles in seven years. Many thought he would match, and possibly surpass, Petty and Earnhardt. He might have — if not for Johnson, his protege at Hendrick Motorsports. The past 10 to 15 years have been the most competitive era in NASCAR history, with the emergence of Gordon and Tony Stewart battling veterans such as Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Wallace, Terry Labonte, Bobby Labonte and others. And they were followed by arguably the best crop of young drivers ever to enter the sport — Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Johnson, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, the Busch brothers and, for a while, even Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Sr. had to fend off such young stars as Richmond, Elliott and Wallace, but neither Petty nor Earnhardt faced as many rising stars and potential threats as Johnson. One of the most impressive feats by both Petty and Earnhardt is that they both beat legendary drivers who had also won multiple championships — Pearson, Yarborough and Waltrip. Johnson, by comparison, has beaten Gordon and Stewart, who have six championships between them. Johnson has also had to face two huge obstacles during his reign — the Chase and NASCAR's new model Cup car. All four of Johnson's championships have come under NASCAR's unique 10-race playoff format. Many fans believe that is a knock against him, arguing it was much tougher to win championships under the old, full-season format. That is a ridiculous argument. How can it be harder to rise to the top and hang on over a long, 36-race schedule than during a tense, pressure-packed, 10-race shootout when everyone starts on almost-equal footing? The Chase has made it harder, not easier, to win championships — just ask Gordon, who has four under the old format and none during the Chase. Under the old format, a driver and team had to be excellent during only two-thirds of the season. Once comfortably on top, they could put it on cruise control and stroke their way to the title, as Earnhardt often did and as Matt Kenseth did in 2003, the last season of the old, season-long format.
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Rising to the top under intense pressure and during a 10-week free-for-all takes much more talent, versatility and mental fortitude. Johnson and his team obviously have mastered that. Johnson also has remained on top during another one of the most dramatic changes in the sport in years — the introduction of NASCAR's new car. NASCAR's new car is much harder to drive and set up, as evidenced by the numerous stars who have struggled to get a handle on it. Johnson has won three of his four titles with the new machine, including in 2007 when the schedule was split between the old car and the new one. Johnson critics argue the new car simply played into the hands of Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and mighty Hendrick Motorsports. True, but that is still a testament to their remarkable talent and ingenuity. The fact that they have mastered it when so many other "elite" teams haven't is just further evidence to their superiority. One of the greatest ironies during Johnson's reign is he has continued to dominate despite the majority of NASCAR fans pulling against him. The way he has ignored the "48 haters" and remained focused on the ultimate prize is yet another testament to his remarkable ability. Much of the disdain for his team has been fueled by several penalties for rules violations, incidents that landed Knaus on suspension and saddled him with the label of "cheater." Their team, though, has risen above such adversity and won despite intense scrutiny and criticism. Johnson may not be the sport's most popular or well-liked driver, but he is currently its greatest — the greatest now, and perhaps of all time. It's time he got his due and was recognized as such.


Jeff Owens is a writer for NASCAR Scene, which is published weekly, 46 weeks per year. Visit www.scenedaily.com for more information.

Tagged: Bill Elliott, James Hylton, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Bobby Labonte, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Terry Labonte, Matt Kenseth, Dale Jarrett, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin

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