Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday November 21, 2008
Everyone loves a good excuse, and this week, in the wake of Jimmie Johnson’s record-tying third straight Sprint Cup championship, I think I’ve heard them all. There are excuses why Johnson’s accomplishment isn’t as valid as Cale Yarborough’s was when he took three titles in a row in 1976-1978, compared to reasons why it was harder for Johnson to win the title under the Cup series’ current rules and with today’s competition. Over and over again, you hear this kind of “logic,” and I use the term loosely, trying to explain away one driver’s accomplishments compared to an earlier or later time in the sport’s history.
Well, the time for excuses is over. I’m tired of hearing how there was less competition back in Cale’s day, that he had the luxury of racing all year with no points reset to put the rest of the field back in contention, or that he had the same car for all three title runs while the CoT came in halfway through Johnson’s run — making it harder. I’m sick of hearing how Johnson only won because of the Chase, or because he has a superior pit crew.
Chase proponents will argue that the playoff takes away 26 races worth of a points lead in an instant, bringing the whole field closer at that critical juncture in the year. This makes it harder to win the championship because a couple hundred points’ worth of lead can be erased just like that. Couple that with the fact these days, there are probably 20 cars capable of winning most weeks — whereas back then, it wasn’t uncommon to have less than five cars on the lead lap — and you get the argument that it’s harder to win a championship today than it was 30 years ago.
On the flip side, those who don’t like the Chase will maintain that it gives points to drivers heading in by resetting the entire field to within 100 points or so. They will point out that without the Chase, Johnson wouldn’t have won the last two titles. The rest of the argument against Johnson maintains that his crew chief and team had more to do with this championship than Cale’s did. Besides being an insult to Yarborough’s team, this argument also fails to account for the evolution of the sport — pit crews practice and train rigorously, and the shop has become a place filled with specialists, and plenty of them. It’s a different world than Cale Yarborough raced in, and that’s no more his fault than it is Jimmie Johnson’s.
There are plenty of what ifs and would haves and maybes to go around. If the Chase didn’t exist… but it does exist. If you are going to speculate about what might have been if there was no Chase, you must also be willing to examine what might have been if there was a Chase in place since Yarborough’s days. If the Chase had existed all along, Yarborough would still have those three straight titles. In fact, he’d have had four titles, beating out Earnhardt in 1980. Dale Earnhardt would have only five titles under the Chase format, Jeff Gordon only two. Terry Labonte, Bobby Allison, Alan Kulwicki, and Matt Kenseth would never have had one at all. Harry Gant would have two of them. So would Bobby Labonte, Kurt Busch, and Rusty Wallace. Kyle Petty and Sterling Marlin would be champions. Darrell Waltrip would have four big trophies. And 2008 would have been Jimmie Johnson’s fourth championship as well.
Some will argue that it’s all silly speculation, because the Chase didn’t exist then. But it also illustrates how outlandish the “if the Chase didn’t exist” argument really is, because the fact is, it does exist. I don’t like it, and I still think Busch was more lucky than good winning during the inaugural year; but it isn’t going away, and that’s not Jimmie Johnson’s fault. Yet some will make it sound like Johnson and his team are somehow wrong for learning how to use the format to their advantage. And they aren’t. Winners, no matter what sport, find a way to make the game work to their strengths, study the weaknesses of others, and exploit them. That is why they win.
The fact is, both Yarborough and Johnson were able to work with the point systems they had AT THE TIME to win three titles in a row. Chase or no Chase, more competition or less, both drivers maintained excellence for three years running. That’s a long time in any sport, and especially in racing, where things evolve seemingly overnight. Both drivers raced hard and raced smart, and used the rules in place at the time to achieve consistent success. So, stop trying to diminish one man’s accomplishments in the face of the other; it’s a moot point at best, since the rules are not the same today as they were 30 years ago, and nothing is going to change that.
Here’s the bottom line: Cale Yarborough and his team were the very best for the three years that they reigned supreme over the sport in the late 1970s. By the same token, Johnson and his team have been the very best for the last three. Both men — and their teams — accomplished something in the process that in six decades, only they can lay claim to.
Let’s leave it at that.
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