Can Jimmie Johnson Be Stopped?
How can a driver who has done what no one else ever has be underrated? Perhaps that’s not Jimmie Johnson’s status anymore. He merely remains underappreciated. Johnson didn’t merely establish a record for consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championships in 2010. He extended it. Johnson’s latest championship, earned by a 39-point margin over Denny Hamlin, was his fifth in a row. The record before he came along belonged to Cale Yarborough, who won three straight (1976-78).
For every NASCAR fan amazed by Jimmie Johnson’s unprecedented feat of winning five straight Sprint Cup championships, there are two who ended the season feeling exasperated.
Dominance is greeted differently in NASCAR, where a race begins with 43 cars on the track instead of two teams. Few races, it seems, end with the bulk of the fans going home happy. Satisfied, perhaps, but not happy. What Johnson, in his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy, has done in nine seasons – not just the past five – is incredible. He has never finished worse than fifth in the standings. Over the span of his career, Johnson has won almost twice as many races (53) as any other driver. He also leads in laps led (10,996), winning percentage (.164), earnings ($88,893,977) and points (55,592). As Johnson said after the fourth of his five straight titles, “I’ve always set my marks high … but I had no clue this stuff would happen.”
Johnson locked up his fifth championship by finishing second to Carl Edwards in the final race. He came to Homestead-Miami Speedway trailing Denny Hamlin by 15, but Hamlin struggled all day and finished 14th. Kevin Harvick, who finished third in the Ford 400, was 41 points off the pace.
A few weeks before the season ended, Harvick said of the perennial champion,
“I like Jimmie as good as anybody, but for the sake of the sport, one of the two of us (Harvick, Hamlin) needs to make something happen.” This they could not do. Many fans cite Johnson’s success as a factor in NASCAR’s declining popularity. Television ratings declined for 28 of the 2010 season’s 36 races. Eight races saw a third consecutive decline. Even when measured by the highly suspect crowd estimates released at many tracks, attendance was down in 28 of the 36 races, as well. Attendance for the NASCAR race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was slightly over half (140,000) what it had been three years earlier (270,000). A struggling economy certainly played a role, but the television ratings attest to something deeper. A variety of reasons have been cited, but one of the more prominent is the notion that many fans are simply grown tired of watching Johnson win all of the time. “I feel like Jimmie has had an unbelievable ability to perform in the Chase and win championships,” said Edwards, winner of the final two races. The same fans who have spent the majority of their lives believing NASCAR conspiratorially rigs the outcome of races now want NASCAR to conspiratorially alter the outcome of races. “NASCAR has to do something to stop Johnson,” they write in e-mails to media members and on personal blogs. No. NASCAR should not do something to stop Johnson. That’s the last thing NASCAR, or any other reputable sport, should do. Hamlin and Harvick gave it their best shot. Other drivers, other teams … they are responsible for stopping Johnson. It’s not Johnson’s fault that he is the best. It’s the fault of the other teams and drivers.
The Longevity Effect
In some ways, resistance to Johnson’s success is declining. His fan base is increasing. Even those weary of watching him win championships now afford him their grudging respect.
“I’ve watched our fan base grow leaps and bounds,” said Johnson. “People tell me they hate me, but they respect me, and that’s cool. It’s tough for fans to look at what we’ve accomplished, because they want their guy to win and I understand that.” After all, there is precious little in Johnson to dislike. He is easygoing and friendly. At 35, he seems remarkably unaffected by success. He grew up in a working-class trailer park in El Cajon, Calif. It’s hard to maintain one’s modesty after five consecutive championships, but it hasn’t stopped Johnson from trying.
“I’ve worked my entire life to be in this position,” he said. “So has Chad (Knaus, his crew chief), and so has Rick (Hendrick, the owner). It’s not that we backed into any of this. It’s not that it just happened. We’ve gone out and worked really, really hard and have dedicated our lives to it, and it’s paid off.”
The Myth of Competition
Based on the remarks of Johnson’s peers, his accomplishments are all the more impressive because, to a man, they consider the level of competition in the Sprint Cup Series to be the best it’s ever been. Their perspective is not unjaded. Of course it seems competitive if the word is defined as outperforming Johnson. Thirteen drivers won races during 2010, one less than 2009, one more than 2008 and three less than 2007. Hamlin, not Johnson, won the most races (8), just as Edwards won more races than Johnson in 2008. But since 2004, NASCAR’s Sprint Cup champion has been determined by the 10-race Chase, which matches the top 12 drivers during the regular season. Over the seven years of the format, which originally included 10 drivers, Johnson’s victory total is 19. By comparison, Edwards has won eight, Greg Biffle seven, Tony Stewart six and Hamlin four. Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer have won three. Yet Rick Hendrick, who has won 10 championships as a team owner (five with Johnson, four with Gordon and one with Terry Labonte), said, “When I first started in the sport, there were three or four cars that you had to beat to win a race, and there were maybe two or three cars to win a championship.
“Today you’ve got at least 15 cars that can win a race. You have guys who won multiple races who didn’t make the Chase.” Of course, when Hendrick first started the Chase for the Sprint Cup didn’t exist.
Kyle Busch ‘s title hopes were long gone by the time his car caught fire at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Though Johnson and Knaus insist there is no top-secret plan enabling them to win five straight titles, the existence of a recurring pattern is undeniable. Each year Johnson struggles a bit during the summer, when the regular season is winding down. He regroups in the races leading up to the Chase and then hits the ground, or track, running when the Chase ensues. In none of Johnson’s five championship seasons did he lead the point standings at the end of the regular season. The regular-season leaders were Matt Kenseth in 2006, Jeff Gordon in ’07, Kyle Busch in ’08, Tony Stewart in ’09 and Harvick in ’10. In the same order, Johnson’s point positions were second, fourth, third, third and sixth. Meanwhile, no one else seems to understand the need to devote extra attention to the final 10 races. Almost to a man, each year the other 11 contenders invariably say they plan to “take it one race at a time” and “do the same things we’ve been doing all year.”
The available evidence suggests this is a perfect formula to be defeated by Johnson and Knaus. “When I talk about doing the same things that we’ve done all year…I’m not saying that we don’t have to win or we don’t have to be better,” said Harvick. “You’re going to have to beat the No. 48 (Johnson) because they do get better in the Chase.” Harvick was correct in the belief that he and his team needed to get better but incorrect in assuming they could.
Hope springs eternal
By Johnson’s lofty standards, he really was a bit off. He won only once in the Chase, his lowest total since 2006. He won by only 39 points after winning by 141 in 2009, 69 in ’08, 77 in ’07 and 56 in ’06. Johnson’s latest championship was the first in which he had to come from behind in the final two races. This championship, he said, “absolutely wraps everything together and makes it complete in some ways, if there were critics to say we hadn’t ever come from behind, or been truly challenged. We’re going to be back next year, hopefully be in the same situation, and the book will be wide open again.”
“For now, it’s somewhat closed and there’s an ending to it, but we’ll be right back in the line of fire again,” he said. Theoretically, an assault on the record book like the one Johnson has been making for five years should have the long-term effect of lifting the level of competition. Hamlin, who won two more races than Johnson in 2010, will be back trying to give Toyota its first championship and will use his inability to hold a 33-point over the final two races as “fuel” (his word) for beating Johnson next year. Edwards, who won the season’s final two races, is another potential contender, as are all the usual suspects: Harvick, Gordon, Stewart, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Biffle, Kenseth, etc. It may be that Johnson’s grip on the trophy is loosening, but it’s still a hard argument to make.
JIMMIE JOHNSON 2002-present
|| Jeff Gordon
|| Kyle Busch
||55,592|| Jeff Gordon
* From race payouts; does not include championship bonuses