Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 25, 2010

Like It Or Not, It’s Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR

When Jimmie Johnson crossed the finish line in second place at last Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he secured his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship. Johnson’s five-year domination of NASCAR’s premier series is unprecedented. He is now in sight of the record of seven total championships, held jointly by the two great legends of stock car racing, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Johnson’s latest championship was also his most exciting. For the first time in the seven years since NASCAR adopted its playoff format, the season ending ten race “Chase for the Championship,” the eventual winner was not in first place heading into the final race. Johnson had slipped to second place after the eighth Chase race in Texas, and came to Homestead fifteen points behind Denny Hamlin and just thirty-one points ahead of Kevin Harvick. That made this Chase the closest yet, with any of the three leading drivers having a legitimate shot at the title.

In the end, Johnson emerged on top by virtue of making the fewest mistakes during the 400 mile season finale. In the early going Hamlin had what appeared to be the fastest car on the track. Starting way back in 37th place, he raced through the field and made up 18 spots in the first 23 circuits around the 1 ½ mile oval. But in turn 2 on lap 24 he spun into the infield after making contact with Greg Biffle’s Ford. The resulting damage to the front end of Hamlin’s #11 Toyota made it difficult to handle for the remainder of the race.

Harvick’s chances were likewise dashed by a moment of bad driving. In his case it was going too fast on pit row in the latter part of the race. The mandatory penalty of being made to return to the pits during green flag racing cost Harvick valuable track position, and virtually assured that he and Hamlin would spend the rest of the day fighting for 2010’s runner-up spot.

Johnson had his own bad moments in the form of some ponderously slow pit stops. But compared to the troubles experienced by Hamlin and Harvick, the time Johnson lost in the pits was relatively minor. When the checkered flag finally flew Carl Edwards won the race with Johnson 2nd and Harvick 3rd. Hamlin finished in 14th place, which was just good enough to edge Harvick for 2nd in the point’s standings.

So surely as a five-time champion Jimmie Johnson is being hailed far and wide by fans of NASCAR. Well, actually not so much. As NASCAR concludes a season in which attendance was down at virtually every race, the sport’s television audience declined by more than 25% some weekends, and a number of teams struggled to find sponsors, more than a few fans and even some drivers are blaming Johnson.

Some of the complaints are just envy talking. At an appearance in New York on Tuesday, Johnson was interviewed by former driver turned television commentator Kyle Petty. Petty asked the champion about other drivers, including Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch, who have said publicly that Johnson’s domination and the lack of parity in the Sprint Cup Series is hurting the sport. A laughing Johnson replied “I think it’s great for the sport, personally.”

But there is also an element of the carping which reflects the tensions within NASCAR, a sport which has grown dramatically over the past two decades. Along the way it has morphed from a largely regional attraction to one with national appeal. In 1990 just more than 25%, or 8 of the 29 races in NASCAR’s top series (then the Winston Cup), were run at tracks outside of the Old South. This year a majority of the Sprint Cup races, 20 out of 36, took place in states other than those that comprised the Confederacy. As the sport has expanded some southern venues have been left behind entirely. That 1990 schedule included two races each at Rockingham and North Wilkesboro, tracks with a lot of stock car history that have long since been abandoned by big time racing.

At the same time, an increasing emphasis on standardization and driver safety has led to cars that while technically still Chevys, Fords, Dodges, and Toyotas, look and handle increasingly alike. It’s led to restrictor plate racing at a handful of events, to limit maximum speeds. It’s led to penalties on drivers for aggressive racing and a feeling on the part of some purists that the heart has been taken out of the sport and that NASCAR is now boring.

Jimmie Johnson is a native of California, not Carolina. As such he is a natural symbol of the new, national NASCAR; and an easy target for those who pine for the good old days of “real” racing. To those critics his success is proof not that he is a superior driver, but rather that he just works the relatively new system of the ten-race Chase better than anyone else.

Stock car racing, like every sport under the sun, evolves and will continue to do so. And like every other sport, NASCAR has some number of fans who will always insist it was more fun, more challenging, more competitive, or in some other way better in some real or imagined past.

Against that wistfulness two realities intrude. The first reality is that most of the slippage in fan support is of course attributable to the economy; certainly far more so than it is to Jimmie Johnson’s dominance or fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Junior’s inadequacies as a driver. The second reality is that the past is, in the end, just that.

Which is why for the 43 drivers who start each weekend, the focus should be on the here and now. If Jimmie Johnson has perfected the way to win in the NASCAR of the 21st century, it’s obviously not because he’s the only driver racing in that timeframe. So here’s a thought for Harvick, Busch, Bowyer, and every other envious driver: drive faster, driver harder, get a better pit crew, figure it out. Because as he emphatically proved on Sunday, JJ isn’t slowing down.

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Responses

  1. I have to laugh sometimes when some old school NASCAR fans say that the Chase has made winning the championship “too easy”. If it is so easy, why can’t any of the other drivers do it? This year, Jimmie was behind. His pit crew was slower than some others. His cars were slower than some others. And still, he managed to pull it off through maximizing what he had. JJ will go down as one of the all-time greats. Those fans who don’t recognize that are cheating themselves.


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