Gimme five!

BY Darrell Waltrip • November 23, 2010

Well, as my old friend Vern Gosdin would say, “That about does it, don’t it?”

I remember back early on in Speedweeks at Daytona in February, after visiting with folks in the garage area, that something was different. I told the gang in one of our NASCAR on FOX meetings that I hadn’t seen a group of people this pumped up in the garage area in a long, long time.

Despite the economy being in the tank and all the offseason changes, everyone was really excited. I think a lot of that was coming from NASCAR loosening the reins on the drivers with their “boys have at it” position. For whatever reason, everyone was anticipating a great season. You know what? They were right.

Now sure, things kind of stumbled to a halt during the Daytona 500 when they had to stop the race for quite a long time to fix a pothole, but after that, well, it was game on. I mean think about Atlanta when Carl Edwards decided to test the “boys have at it” position of NASCAR by sending Brad Kesolowski airborne. NASCAR's position was: It was between the drivers to handle.

If you look back at all the retaliation that took place on the track in 2010, you can clearly see NASCAR wasn’t kidding. They’ve really let the drivers work things out on their own and it has been so much better for our sport. I know the drivers feel a lot more freedom to express themselves.

The only thing that was somewhat confusing to me was NASCAR coming down on two drivers for comments they made on Twitter. As so many of you know, I'm a big Twitter fan. It’s refreshing to have the instant interaction with the fans. Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin found out painfully and, well, expensively how once you put something out there on Twitter, it's there forever and you can never take it back. I love Twitter, so I didn’t really agree with those two guys being fined for their comments.

One of the things that made it a great year was the different number of winners. Now sure, Denny Hamlin had eight wins and Jimmie had six, but you had names like McMurray, Reutimann, Bowyer and others taking home hardware.

One of the major storylines was the remarkable comeback by Jamie McMurray. Near the end of 2009, the young man didn’t even know if he was going to have a job. Jamie got married and he and his wife are expecting. He won the big races at Daytona and Indy and it has been a real pleasure to watch the maturing process of a very fine driver and young man.

I particularly enjoyed the resurgence of Richard Childress Racing. Again going back to 2009, they had a dismal season. They were for all intents and purposes also-rans that year. Fast forward one short year and look where they are. Clint Bowyer won for his brand new sponsor and Kevin Harvick was in the thick of the championship battle right up to the checkered flag at Homestead. It was kind of sad not to see Jeff Burton win. He came close but just couldn’t seal the deal.

The irony is that in 2010, the Roush Fenway Racing cars had the year RCR had in 2009. For most of this year, the Roush cars simply weren’t competitive. You always expect to see the No. 99, the No. 17 and the No. 16 run up front, lead laps and win races. It just didn’t happen until right near the end of this season.

A lot of the credit for the late blooming has to go to the new Ford FR9 powerplants, The Roush bunch went to work to make their cars better and all that hard work paid off. Those cars came alive. Just look at Phoenix and Homestead, where Carl Edwards won back-to-back races.

Our season is just barely over and folks are already asking who is going to be the new challenger for Jimmie Johnson. I keep saying it, until someone steps up and takes it to the No. 48 consistently, Jimmie has to be your odds-on-favorite to repeat. He and his team are the benchmark for our sport and you aren’t going to beat them by luck. As I say all the time, these cats have their act together when the Chase starts. They simply get it done better than anybody we’ve ever seen.

There sure haven’t been many dynasties in our sport. Maybe back with the Pettys, then Junior Johnson and then Hendrick Motorsports with Jeff Gordon for a time, but this clearly is the greatest ever. Five consecutive championships — I mean think about last year setting the record with four, now they break their own record and make it five.

Now I’ve been around in this sport for 40 years, but by far this is the greatest team our sport has ever laid its eyes on. It’s going to take a very special effort to beat them in the Chase, because they truly are a special group of guys. Their leader, Chad Knaus, is flawless. His calm demeanor on the radio during a race is something to listen to. Chad is always thinking. He’s miles ahead of everyone else. Now that’s not a slam to any other crew chief out there on a pit box, but the record book simply doesn’t lie.

It still tickles me that people got all torqued when he made the pit crew swap with the No. 24 team. To me it simply showed great leadership. Where does it say it’s wrong if you make a change when you know it’s for the better? That’s what you expect out of your leaders. You expect them to see things, anticipate things and make hard decisions that others can’t or won’t.

Now when it comes to drivers, well, Jimmie Johnson is one of the most disciplined and dedicated drivers I've seen in my life. He doesn’t blow up or have a meltdown when things go sour like other drivers are prone to do.

The beauty of Jimmie and Chad is they are always on the same page. The chemistry and harmony is magical. It's literally one of those once-in-a-lifetime deals that every driver and crew chief in that garage area hope to experience once.

I’ve said it time and time again, Jimmie Johnson is the best closer I have ever seen in the sport. While Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick were out there beating themselves at Homestead, Jimmie was methodical and consistent as he worked to the front. There was a lot of talk about how good Jimmie was or wasn’t at Homestead, leading up to the race. Well, cross that off, he brought that car home second to Carl Edwards.

This championship made a statement by the No. 48. They won races early this year. The switch from the wing to the spoiler set them back, there’s no doubt about it. They fought through it all. Then for the first time in seven years we had the tightest point battle among three drivers right down to the last race. At the end of the day, the No. 48 races home in the second spot and wins the championship.

What can you say about their owner Rick Hendrick that hasn’t already been said? With the championship at Homestead, he also took over the No. 1 spot for championships by a car owner. Junior Johnson and Richard Childress have six. Petty Enterprises has nine.

Now the record books have to be re-written with Rick Hendrick at the top. He won one with Terry Labonte, four with Jeff Gordon and now five with Jimmie Johnson. That’s simply quality leadership. It doesn’t have anything to do with drivers, crew chiefs, cars, crews or anything. It’s all Rick Hendrick. He gives those teams what they ask for and what they need. He expects great results from them and with 10 championships, you can see he gets it.

Obviously he’s not opposed to making the hard decisions as we’ve just witnessed. When everyone has the same stuff and you have one team winning six races and their fifth consecutive championship and your other three can’t even win a race, well, you have to take action.

Lance McGrew has been moved over to be the crew chief on the No. 5 car with Mark Martin. Crew chief Alan Gustafson will now call the shots for Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 crowd. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will get another crew chief. Steve Letarte is moving from the No. 24 to now run point for the No. 88.

We keep hearing about possible changes to the Chase and that’s an area I hope NASCAR explores. I still favor tweaking it a bit. I still maintain there needs to be a process of elimination. If you qualify for the Chase, you can only remain if you perform. If you don’t, then you are knocked out. I think by the time we get to Homestead, we are down to three guys who will fight it out for all the marbles.

If you want to see something interesting, go look at the marquee names that never won a race this year. The list includes Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Jeff Burton and others. It really is amazing that guys of that caliber were unable to visit Victory Circle. Don’t get me wrong, most had their chances but for whatever reason, they simply couldn’t close the deal.

So it’s been a great year and it’s been fun to watch. Now we all get to enjoy Thanksgiving with our families and then next week is the NASCAR Awards banquet in Las Vegas. Has anyone looked at a calendar yet and done the math? Don’t look now but the 2011 Daytona 500 is not that far away.


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