Johnson 4-peat shadows challenging NASCAR season
It's too soon for Jimmie Johnson to contemplate his place in NASCAR history. He'll save those conversations for a time long after the champagne has stopped flowing on his record fourth consecutive championship. But after charging his way into the elite club of drivers with more than three titles - Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon - Johnson can't escape the debates over where he stands among the all-time greats. "It's tough for me to really reflect on it when I'm still competing," he said. "Toward the end of my career, I'm sure I'll focus a lot more on it. But right now we're just kind of in a rhythm of things, and I hope to keep it going. "There's no guarantees it will continue. But I'm just trying to keep the same mindset, same work ethic, same focus and just see how long we can keep this thing moving." Another long year over, and Johnson heads into another offseason still plotting how to keep his spot atop the Sprint Cup Series. But it's hardly a case of groundhog day. The 2009 season was unlike any year in recent memory. It will, of course, be remembered for Johnson's historic march. And the late-season emergence of Brad Keselowski as NASCAR's newest polarizing figure is certainly fresh in everyone's mind. But NASCAR faced a lot of challenges between the February opener at Daytona and last weekend's conclusion at Homestead. Many remain unresolved. There's the ongoing saga of driver Jeremy Mayfield, who has refused to quietly go away after becoming the first driver suspended under NASCAR's toughened drug policy. The drama consumed NASCAR all summer, and just when the controversy finally seemed to simmer, Mayfield hired high-profile lawyer Mark Geragos and ramped up his fight another notch. Now it will drag on through the offseason, as Geragos attempts to introduce aspects of NASCAR chairman Brian France's personal life to the case. Just this week, NASCAR asked a federal court to prevent Geragos from collecting information and documents from France's ex-wife. NASCAR also is still feeling the pinch from the economic crisis. Teams still struggling to find sponsorship continue to fight for their survival, with mixed results. The organization known as Gillett-Evernham Motorsports this time last year is now a shell of its former self, currently existing as Richard Petty Motorsports but with a third of its former employees. The name might be the same two months from now, but most everything else could look much different as RPM moves slowly toward a merger with Yates Racing. The agreement has led to a loss of jobs and at least one race team as the NASCAR work force and number of competitive entries in the field continues to dwindle. Attendance at tracks all over the circuit has been down this year, as have television ratings. Unlike previous years, NASCAR is taking a pro-active approach to its problems. NASCAR listened to its fan council when it implemented midseason double-file restarts and worked with its television partners on establishing universal start times in 2010. The sport leadership also held at least two unprecedented town-hall meetings with competitors to discuss what's ailing the sport. Although there has yet to be any major tweaks to come out of those sessions, NASCAR is considering changes to the current car, which many consider the catalyst for many of the current problems. Drivers complain the car is too difficult to drive, while fans insist it has dulled the action. All the talk had seemingly fallen on deaf ears until recently, which if nothing else is a sign of NASCAR softening its stubbornness. There's still work to be done at Daytona and Talladega, which were marked by three violent last-lap accidents. NASCAR made a reactionary decision before last month's race at Talladega to ban bump-drafting, and the end result was a dulled version of what had typically been one of the most exciting races of the year. And, by the way, two cars still went airborne. The problems of 2009 weren't limited to the governing body. Most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a horrendous season, and many can point to the decline in overall NASCAR interest to his fall. Fans love Earnhardt, and when he's not running well, many simply don't want to watch. In the most trying season of his career, he went winless and finished 25th in the standings while his Hendrick Motorsports teammates went 1-2-3 as Johnson gave the organization its record 12th championship. Team owner Rick Hendrick this week vowed to make turning Earnhardt's team around his top priority and promised to get Earnhardt back on pace by next season. Kyle Busch is trying to do the same after a quick fall from the top that saw him miss the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, but he's been recently pushed aside as the star of Joe Gibbs Racing by teammate Denny Hamlin, who found a strong voice this year and asserted himself as one to watch in 2010. Everyone will be watching 50-year-old Mark Martin next season to see if he can stay on top after a resurgent season that proved he can keep up with his younger rivals. He won five races and finished second in the standings for a fifth time, and was persuaded by Hendrick to sign on for another two years. Juan Pablo Montoya found his groove in his third season since leaving Formula One, briefly mounting a championship challenge. As did Tony Stewart, who proved critics wrong by not only finding success in his first season as team owner, but also by putting together a bid to become the first driver/owner since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to win a championship. Then there's Keselowski, who has asserted himself as NASCAR's newest star. He's aggressive enough on track that he's aggravated several competitors, and that doesn't bother him. Keselowski has vowed not to back down to anyone, and that hard-nosed style has everyone looking forward to what 2010 may bring.