Appreciate Jimmie Johnson’s greatness

How do you describe greatness in sports?

Most of us rely on using names like New York Yankees, Boston Celtics, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots to illustrate distinction. We often refer to the names Lombardi, Maris, DiMaggio, Aaron or Bradshaw with reverence in a show of respect for their accomplishments.

In stock car racing, it’s Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt who are the first to come to mind, or if you are a longtime fan, you might say David Pearson or Darrell Waltrip.

On Sunday, Jimmie Johnson earned the right to be included among the greats of NASCAR, winning an unprecedented fifth Sprint Cup title in a row.

Even though Johnson now ranks right behind Petty and Earnhardt (both with seven) in the number of championships in NASCAR, the majority of stock car fans still hesitate or even outright refuse to use “greatness” when describing him and his team.

Maybe it’s because, throughout history, contemporaries never fully appreciate what it is they are witnessing. It’s often said great painters and great composers are never fully appreciated during their own time. Perhaps it won’t be until a time in the near future when we are forced to rely upon our own memories, which often amplify and exaggerate, that we will fully realize the privilege we had of watching Johnson compete on a racetrack.

I wonder if the fans sitting in the grandstands at old Yankee Stadium knew that the team they were watching on the field would be remembered as one of the greatest of all time? Or that the fans shivering in Lambeau Field in Green Bay could imagine that their team’s coach would ever be thought of as the standard for winning coaches?

Winning in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has been called one of the most difficult victories in all of sports, and for good reason. It takes a magical combination of both man and machine merging into near perfection for four hours in conditions where a mistake could literally be the difference between living and dying. The sport plays out against the backdrop of competition from an army of 42 other similar combinations all determined to beat you to the prize.

Get the picture? This isn’t like any other sport.

Johnson, his crew chief Chad Knaus and their entire Lowe’s-sponsored race team at Hendrick Motorsports have figured out how to do it better than anyone else.

On Sunday afternoon in Homestead, they made history, claiming a fifth title in a row, a feat never before accomplished in over 60 years of the sport. Thousands in the grandstands and millions watching on television, listening on radio and following along on the Internet were witness to history in the making.

Yet, their accomplishments — as remarkable as they are — are likely to be met with disapproval and downright disgust by many who follow the sport. Likewise, the sport’s pundits will write that having one driver and one team winning all the time diminishes the sport and that Johnson himself, in the worst of all possible putdowns, is too vanilla and boring — which couldn’t be further from the truth.

With NASCAR’s popularity languishing and with huge tracts of empty seats in its mega-sized racetracks and television ratings in decline, many have used the domination by Johnson and his team as a convenient scapegoat. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s hard to understand the reasoning behind the legions of NASCAR fans who say they hate watching Johnson win. I don’t think it’s because they don’t like him personally. Most of them have no idea what kind of person he is. Yet ask them whom they want to win, and they’ll likely say anyone but Johnson.

I’d like to think that given the way the world is today, most Americans are looking for change, in everything. I prefer that reasoning to thinking their dislike of Johnson is the result of some sinister aversion to perfection.

Johnson himself acknowledges he doesn’t completely understand why there are so many fans who would rather see someone else win, but having people dislike him doesn’t stop his determination to keep winning.

Too often, NASCAR fans are quick to dismiss Johnson’s remarkable talent and his noteworthy achievements. They say his streak of championships, five in just nine seasons in the Sprint Cup series, is because he has a great crew chief and great team.

Well, they are right. He does have a great crew chief and a great team and a well-financed organization behind him. But what fans fail to take into consideration is the precise execution week in and week out by each member of the team. This is what places Johnson and his team above the rest.

To ignore this simple fact is to admit one’s inability to distinguish the difference between the great and the not-so-great. Just having the tools to succeed doesn’t always mean you will succeed.

To call Johnson’s winning an unprecedented fifth title in a row anything less than the remarkable achievement it is would simply cheapen the talent of the competition and cheapen the sport.

Johnson and his team are, quite frankly, the very best at what they do.

After losing the 2004 NASCAR title to Kurt Busch by eight points, the next year Johnson fell victim to a blown tire that gave the title to Tony Stewart. Both the pain and bitter taste of defeat two years in a row was something Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team would never forget and vowed never to feel again.

I’d like to think it was the memory of those two disappointments that fueled their assault on the NASCAR record books.

Championship No. 5 was easily the most difficult. Logic tells you that they should get easier each time around. But, if you follow racing for any length of time, you’ll discover that much about the sport defies logic.

Entering the season finale on Sunday, Johnson was his usual self, comparatively relaxed, even though he found himself in a position to which he was unaccustomed. In four previous championship years, he was leading the points by a comfortable margin at the start of the final race, forced to defend his points lead, which Johnson said is harder to do. This time around, being second in points meant having to be more aggressive and less defensive.

He and his team did everything they needed to do on Sunday, although crew chief Knaus said he still dreams of winning both the season finale and the championship in the same year (he likely will one day).

In the postrace news conference, Johnson was asked if this championship solidified his greatness. Johnson couldn’t give an answer; it’s not his style. Both team owner Hendrick and crew chief Knaus answered in the affirmative.

His team is already talking about a sixth title. Knaus referred to it as a “six-pack.” Right now, that doesn’t sound too farfetched.

You often hear longtime fans talk about the greats of stock car racing. They talk about all the things drivers with names like Pearson, Jarrett and Wallace could do with a race car. Without hesitation, you can place Johnson in that elite category. He has shown time and time again that he, too, can wrangle a race car like the best of them.

When something is good, it’s always good — yesterday, today and tomorrow.

I don’t know about you, but I never get bored with the best. And if I’m watching the best, it makes me feel better about myself, too.

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