Jimmie Johnson is 400 miles away from again becoming King of NASCAR. As you try not to yawn, think what the inscription on the crown should proclaim.
World’s Greatest Athlete? World’s Most Dominant Athlete? World’s Best Athlete? World’s Most Underappreciated Athlete?
Or is he an athlete at all?
We’re not here to get into that argument. The point is that when it comes to achievement in the sports world, everybody is sucking No. 48’s fumes.
Johnson needs to finish 23rd or better at Homestead Sunday to win the Sprint Cup Championship. It would be his sixth title in eight years. That sounds like something LeBron James guaranteed Heat fans when he took his talents to South Beach, but do you really see that happening?
Can you think of any fan base outside of Tuscaloosa, Ala., that could ponder such success without being drunk first?
With Johnson, no star seems out of reach. It’s really just a matter of semantics. Let’s ponder the appropriate title.
That encompasses skill, influence, raw talent, success and a few other subjective measures. Whatever skills it takes to drive a car fast, Johnson has more of them than anyone else.
The guy is clutch. His career winning percentage of 24.2 in Chase races is twice as high as his regular-season mark. You’d want him at the free-throw line with the game tied in triple overtime, or having to make a putt with the Ryder Cup depending on it.
‘Forbes Magazine’ rated Johnson America’s most influential athlete last year. That means he could sell more air conditioners than even Peyton Manning. As for sheer success, we give you the next title . . .
Johnson won five straight Sprint Cups before letting somebody else have some fun the past two years. The Celtics were the prior team in major professional sports to win that many titles in a row, and that was 40 years ago.
Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt each won seven career NASCAR crowns. But it’s harder to win now in every sport, especially NASCAR, where the difference between first and nowhere is measured in milliseconds.
Johnson has the best equipment and help money can buy. But all the power of Hendrick Motorsports hasn’t turned Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. into dominant drivers. There’s just something special about JJ. Perhaps he’s simply the . . .
A race car driver?
That argument’s been going on since the invention of the floor mat. We won’t settle it here, other than to say Prince Fielder would need CPR if he even tried to crawl into a stock car. Which leads us to the next title . . .
Most Underappreciated Athlete.
Part of it comes with the territory. When ESPN listed the top 100 North American athletes of the 20th Century, three race car drivers (A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Petty) made the list. That’s only one more than the number of horses, and neither Secretariat or Citation had to deal with restrictor plates.
Even in NASCAR circles, Johnson doesn’t get enough respect. Dale Jr. has been voted most popular driver 10 consecutive years. He has 12 total wins during that time, and just two over the past seven years.
Johnson has 63 career victories. Maybe if he changed his name to Bill Elliott Jr. or went 36-0 he’d be popular enough to be in a Super Bowl commercial.
If he did go unbeaten, critics would likely say Johnson’s killing the sport. He is too corporate, too methodical, too precise. Success without spice doesn’t do much for TV or fan ratings.
Pete Sampras in tennis and Tim Duncan in baseketball always suffered the same rap. We’re starting to hear it about Alabama’s football machine as it closes in on a three-peat. Nick Saban even chided his Tide fans for getting bored and not sticking around till the end of 52-0 wins.
If Mr. Five-Time was a football team, he’d be up 33-17 with five minutes left in the game. The Homestead clock is ticking.
“We’ll have to go down there and run 400 miles,” he said. “Although we have a nice cushion (28 points over Matt Kenseth), we still have to go down there and take care of business.”
You know he will, then the semantic debate will kick in. Is Johnson the greatest, the most dominant or simply the best athlete of our time?