Does Johnson’s title run hurt NASCAR?

Kevin Harvick believes it’s time for Jimmie Johnson’s four-year reign as the NASCAR Sprint Cup champion to end.

As he sat next to Johnson during the postrace presser at Talladega Superspeedway last week, Harvick opined, “No offense to him, but somebody else needs to win.”

Johnson quickly replied, “Says who?”

Harvick didn’t mince words.

“Everybody but them wants somebody else to win,” Harvick said. “I like Jimmie as good as anybody. But for the sake of the sport, one of the two of us (Harvick and Denny Hamlin) needs to make something happen. I can promise you that.”

There are quite a few pundits in the NASCAR garage who believe Harvick’s comments are shortsighted.

Jeff Gordon, Johnson’s teammate and the first four-time champion in the Hendrick Motorsports stable, questions Harvick’s motives.

"Because they want to win?” Gordon asked with a laugh. “I think that there are probably two sides to it. This in a way kind of happened to me and what he’s going through is far more impressive than anything I ever did.

“But 10 years from now, or even 20 years from now, you’ll look back on this time and go, ‘Wow.’ You will just look at how impressive it is and how impactful it’s been to the sport and how chances of it ever happening again are near impossible. And I think it will be respected more and appreciated more and probably looked at in a positive way.”

Gordon, 39, remembers when he was the new kid on the block. This relative unknown from California, who quickly rose through the good ol’ boy Southern establishment, found himself challenging the sports’ icon Dale Earnhardt for his first title in 1995.

Although Earnhardt led the most laps and won the season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Gordon led a lap, finished 32nd and still won the title by 34 points. It was not a comfortable position for the 24-year-old. However, the initial competition with Earnhardt coupled with Gordon’s success elevated NASCAR beyond its status as a regional sport.

“That (1995) championship grew fans because at that point in the sport, at that time, there was just a tremendous amount of growth that was happening," Gordon said. “Me being so opposite of Dale, just being young and brought up in racing in a way where there was a camera presence and sponsorship awareness and all these things was just a total opposite of what Dale was and what he represented at that time that it was growing his fans and their hatred toward me and growing my fans and an appreciation for that rivalry.

“That carried to me for a while and while there were a lot of fans out there that didn’t like that, we went on and won three more championships.”

Gordon’s accomplishments triggered a change in the complexion of NASCAR’s driver roster. Owners no longer relied only on the short tracks around North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia to discover talent. Johnson and Harvick wheeled their way to Sprint Cup from Southern California.

The next Gordon, Johnson or Harvick could be out there. Certainly, many a young racer will be inspired by Johnson’s tremendous run of four titles and 53 wins in just nine seasons of Sprint Cup competition.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., 36, intently watched Gordon’s early battles with his father. Junior, a true historian of the NASCAR, believes “every sport needs its greats.”

“The more successful he is or anyone is for that matter, the better the sport is for the long term,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “He’s already set a standard with four in a row. Should he continue to be successful, over the long term, it builds an icon and it establishes the sport some more identity. It will be good for the people who pull against him should he not win it, but that’s the only person it would be good for.

“Some NBA teams, what do they win? Six titles? Every sport has their Muhammad Alis and Michael Jordans. We’ve had King Richard (Petty), my father and I’m sure a few other guys in that argument. In this generation, he’s that guy. That’s good for the sport in 25 years, that he wins again. The sport will bank more in 25 years on the fact that he won five in a row than he got beat and only won four.”

Still, as track attendance and TV ratings continue to dwindle, critics have questioned whether too much of a good thing — as in the case of Johnson’s continued success — has repelled the old guard of NASCAR fans. Gordon doesn’t believe there’s a parallel.

“They’re trying to figure out what we have to do to re-engage the mass of fans that we’ve drawn for so long,” Gordon said. “We’ve got incredible fans and avid fans, but it’s obvious that those numbers are down. And we have more measuring tools and more media outlets and all those things now so we have ways of measuring it.

“I personally don’t think it has anything to do with Jimmie winning four or five or six or however many (championships) he wins because I think each one that he wins makes it that much more challenging for the other ones to pull it off and to take that away from him and I think it should engage fans in even more ways to be anxious to see somebody do that. And, plus, he’s building his fan base up while doing it because of how impressive it is.”

So why is NASCAR considering making changes to the format of the Chase for the Sprint Cup? Yes, Johnson has made winning titles appear easy over the last four years, with 19 of his career victories coming during the playoffs.

NASCAR chairman Brian France insists, though, that the possiblity of tweaks to the sport’s postseason is not a knee-jerk reaction to Johnson’s success. With Denny Hamlin holding a slim 33-point lead entering the final two races of the season, the Chase has played out according to plan. The last time the title run was this tight with two races remaining was the 2007 battle between Johnson and Gordon, when just 30 points separated the teammates.

“We’re not going to make a change on one year, though,” France said. “Any more than we would have changed it because we had three or four consecutive years with Jimmie winning it all. We won’t look at one year, will look at what would be good over many, many years. So we’ll see.”

France agrees that Johnson’s current run is not detrimental to NASCAR’s growth. He believes Johnson’s accomplishments should be embraced. Still, France is hopeful the sanctioning body can devise a points system that will create memorable moments.

“That’s an earned thing,” France said. “That’s a wonderful, dynasty part of history. So we’re not changing it to deal with Jimmie’s success. … It’s not about that we don’t like the idea that somebody can win four or five in a row – frankly, that makes historical things happen. We’re good with that. It’s just can we put more playoff-style atmosphere into the Chase – we’ll have to see."

Earnhardt Jr. agrees that Johnson’s dominance is well-earned.

The way he sees it, the four titles in a row are not a sign of an advantage in terms of equipment, but rather a credit to the talent of Johnson and his team.

"Just because Jimmie has won four in a row doesn’t mean we don’t have parity,” Earnhardt said. “We have parity. They’re just a great team with a super talented driver and a super talented team, crew, great motors. They’ve been the total package. But they have the same opportunity as everyone else in the garage. They just make it happen."