The Frontstretch: Jimmie Johnson - Modern Day Legend? Third Consecutive Title Would Put Him In Rare Company by Vito Pugliese -- Tuesday October 21, 2008

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Jimmie Johnson - Modern Day Legend? Third Consecutive Title Would Put Him In Rare Company

The Voice Of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Tuesday October 21, 2008


To hear many pundits in the media lately, the sky is falling; it is quite possibly the end of the world as foretold in the Book of Revelations or Nostradamus. There is no pulling back from the precipice, and everyone is doomed to accept the fate that becomes them.

No, I am not talking about the economy or the upcoming election. I am referring to Jimmie Johnson’s third consecutive Sprint Cup championship being anything but a foregone conclusion at this point.

There are few certainties in life: Death, taxes and Johnson’s performance in the last 10 races of the season. Each year, the title fight tightens over NASCAR’s final two months, and each time, the No. 48 team pops up no matter how many times others try to pound on them, like some sort of possessed Whack-A-Mole.

Dating back to when he joined the series in his rookie season of 2002, Johnson and the No. 48 team have been in the thick of the title fight each and every year. Of Johnson’s 39 career wins to date, 15 have come in the last 10 races of the year. Even more telling for the stat-geek in all of us, along with those 10 wins have come an equally impressive and morale crushing 10 second-place finishes — and five third-place runs to boot. Sure, the Chase format has only been used since 2004 — in a year and a format that saw Johnson miss the championship by a scant eight points to Kurt Busch — but it illustrates for everyone the simple fact that when it comes down to crunch time, betting against the No. 48 team is akin to putting all your chips into AIG’s basket.

What is truly remarkable is just how consistent this team has been since its inception. At first, it was regarded as just another Hendrick Motorsports outfit to support the No. 24 team. In 2001, Jeff Gordon was heading towards his fourth series championship when it was announced he was going to be co-owning Rick Hendrick’s new fourth car. The driver for Gordon’s new operation? Then-Busch Grand National Series driver Jimmie Johnson. A relative unknown to many, Johnson’s team was not really lighting up the junior series, though a win in 2001 and an eighth-place points finish was actually quite impressive for the small Herzog Motorsports operation.

The driver who was more familiar to those who follow desert racing or ASA was just about to get his feet wet with a few starts in the Cup Series before going full-time the following season. Johnson’s starts were inauspicious enough, with a 25th-place finish at Homestead being his best showing. His first full season behind the wheel, however, was beyond impressive.

In 2002, Johnson won in only his 13th career start in the 10th race of the season at California. It would take just three more races for him to win again at Dover. Going into the final stretch of his rookie season, he actually was leading the points with seven races remaining. At Talladega, the field was set by points due to a rainout, and under the opening parade laps, outside polesitter Mark Martin had his steering lock up and plowed into the side of Johnson, driving them both into the infield grass. Martin’s intermittent steering left Johnson with a wrinkled fender; however, a sour engine sometime later sealed his fate with a 37th place finish. Johnson would close the gap to 82 points between he and eventual champion Tony Stewart with four races remaining, but a few poor runs (including spinning himself out at Atlanta while in contention) relegated him to a fifth place points finish.

The duo of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus may one day be looked at as one of the most legendary driver / crew chief combos in history.

What might be lost in all of this, and what cannot be stressed enough, was this was Johnson’s first year in the series under a points format that many consider to be “the” defining mark of a NASCAR champion. Six years later, the same driver and crew chief are preparing to match the mark that was set by Cale Yarborough, with crew chief Herb Nab and owner Junior Johnson during the 1976-78 seasons. This is a feat that has never been matched by a driver since, though Darrell Waltrip came close in 1983 (47 points), Dale Earnhardt in 1995 (34) and Jeff Gordon in 1996 (37).

Say what you will about the current competition today, but Yarborough’s work was done against the likes of Richard Petty, Waltrip, and Bobby Allison. You’re looking at over 400 career wins and 14 championships among those drivers. That’s not including David Pearson — who at the time was running a partial schedule — so throw in another 105 wins and three titles with the Silver Fox while you’re at it.

All of this leads me to this central question: Is it time to consider Jimmie Johnson among those names — in the same breath as some of the greatest drivers of any generation? To quote Sly when Mickey shows up to his house late one night in Rocky II: “Absolutely.”

In seven years, Johnson has amassed 39 wins; to date, he is averaging over six wins a season. At only 32 years, he has (by today’s standards) realistically about a decade of competitiveness left at this level. Johnson keeps himself in shape, hasn’t suffered a significant injury (short of falling off the roof of a golf cart he was surfing on), and now has the privilege of driving in the safest cars and on the safest tracks the sport has ever known. At the going rate, Johnson would eclipse David Pearson’s 105 wins towards the end of those 10 years. Junior Johnson once said a driver is in his prime once he reaches his mid-to-late 30s. If Johnson still has a few years to go until he fully matures as a driver, that’s a scary thought.

Also helping Johnson’s cause is the car he is driving. Hendrick Motorsports is nothing short of a dynasty and is unapologetic about it. Their dominance had been challenged in recent years by the likes of Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing, but since 2006, it has firmly reestablished its claim as the team to beat in NASCAR’s top division. This level of competition at HMS causes all of its teams to rise to the occasion; what better way to motivate than to beat the car in the stall next to you? It is reminiscent of Roush’s performance from 2002-05, when all of its teams were winning and seen as legitimate title contenders. While Kyle Busch has done the lion’s share of winning at Joe Gibbs Racing for Toyota this year, some of Johnson’s closest competition has come from within in teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Driving a Hendrick car does not always guarantee success, though: just ask Casey Mears or Brian Vickers. The devil is in the details in today’s era of competition, and the perpetration of the No. 48 cars by the team led by Chad Knaus is the benchmark by which all others are measured. It is no coincidence that Knaus graduated Magna Cum Laude from Evernham University, as the dominance of the No. 48 team is reminiscent of the No. 24 car during the 1990s. If anything, it is even more impressive in the light of increased competition and parity, coupled with ever-tightening rules and regulations brought about by the transition to a new race car in the CoT.

Johnson has grown as a driver the last few years. He was once seen as more of a liability than an asset in restrictor plate races — one who would seemingly spin by himself running the outside line in the middle of a pack of cars. Now, he’s a two-time winner with a Daytona 500 trophy to his name. Johnson still has yet to win on a road course; his most memorable road race moment was when he stuffed his Busch ride into the Styrofoam blocks, tires, and blue Armco barrier head-on after jumping the sand trap when his brakes failed while doing 140 mph at Watkins Glen in 2000. He celebrated skirting death that day by standing triumphantly on the roof of his car.

But other than that, the record is nothing less than stellar at this point in Johnson’s career. He does have a few more milestones to reach before he retires, to be sure, but as Johnson stands a month away from his third consecutive title, is it not too much to ask that he be mentioned among some of the best in the history of the sport?

There are two races this year that sealed the deal for me, as far as picking Johnson to win the title as well as being mentioned among the best the sport has ever known. The first was at Phoenix in April. Johnson ran well and led the better part of the first half of the race. But by the second half, he was a distant third to Earnhardt, Jr., and future teammate Mark Martin. Everyone had to pit to make it to the end on fuel, and even the Lowe’s machine was choking on vapors. However, Knaus ordered Johnson to stay out after all others had pitted, then had him back it down to near pace car speed to conserve just enough fuel to coast around to a seven-second win.

The second race was this weekend at Martinsville. It is rare that with the number of strategies employed at a short track race and the number of variables that occur with beatin,’ bangin’, and brakin’ for one driver to lead over two-thirds of an event, and Johnson did just that, the only mark on his car coming from getting a little too close to the wall when receiving his checkered flag from the flagman.

Now, Johnson’s third title is not in the bag by any means; a blown motor, tire, or errant move by another driver could easily knock Johnson out of a race, relegating him to a poor finish that coughs up over 100 points. However, for that to mean anything, Biffle, Burton or Edwards would need to still be virtually perfect from here on out. Neither of those drivers – nor their teams – have shown that to be a possibility this year. Of course, anything can happen in racing, and it usually does. Having said that, Jimmie Johnson happens a lot too. He’s got six wins so far, and with four races to go, he’s 149 points ahead of Biffle, 152 in front of Burton, and a whopping 198 atop Edwards.

With that, Johnson’s a safe bet to win his third title in as many years, putting him in the same sentence as Pearson, Yarborough, Waltrip, Allison, and the one who helped get him here — Jeff Gordon.

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10/21/2008 01:13 PM

Give me a break! Jimmie Johnson is nothing compared to the likes of David Pearson and Cale Yarborough. With the most dishonest crew chief and a felon car owner, Johnson is a disgrace to NASCAR. He should never have been given the 2006 title given that his car was found to be illegal after qualifying at the Daytona 500. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, Casey Mears won that race, not Johnson. Same with the 07 title. When Knaus got the boot at Sonoma, Johnson shoiuld have been disqualified from the title! But Ol’ Felon Rick has such a good “in” with France and Helton, Jimmie has been assured of his third title. Sorry, but I’m not buying this garbage. “Vanilla Jimmie” is all you need to look at to know that NASCAR is nothing but a complete joke, and the biggest suckers are the fans who buy into their hokie show. And yes, I can’t stand Jimmie or that sleeze-bag crew chief of his. Jeff Burton and even Greg Biffle would make a far more ethical champion than the guy who’s going to take it again this year.

10/21/2008 01:21 PM

If ever there was a contrast between the great drivers and the lucky drivers this is it .
Another blog aptly described Cale’s accomplishments in the three championships he won vs Johnsons three , assuming there is a third . And the numbers don’t lie . Cales’ three championship seasons dwarf Johnsons’ .
But the larger issue is , does Johnson deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the true greats . Cale , David , Dale , and of course Richard . Well , many of Johnsons wins have come through clever pit strategy not driving brilliance . With the others , it was quite the opposite . Their wins came primarily from pure driving , hard charging every lap . The one exception might be Pearson , who usually saved the car for the last half of the race , but then i don’t think David ever told his crew he was content to just ride and collect points at Talladega . And say what you will , the competition was stronger in those days , and the cars required much more driving ability and driver endurance to win races . There are numerous photos showing those drivers in victory lane , Oxygen masks on to keep from passing out , to show how hard racing was .
Johnson , and for that matter Gordon , have their cars and teams to thank for much of their success , much more so than driving ability .

10/21/2008 01:59 PM

Racing in the modern era is a team sport. I think it’s unfair to compare drivers across eras, because the sport has changed so much, you can’t say that in a different era, Jimmie Jounson would not have bulldogged for wins with the best of them, and you can’t say that the great drivers from bygone days wouldn’t ahve milked today’s system to win championships. The cars handle differently, pit work and strategy is much more crucial to success than it was a half-century ago. Driving skills have evolved. It’s an unfair comparison to say Johnson isn’t as good because his team is more important-that’s the nature of NASCAR today.

Also, and I blame the TV broadcast booth for this one, the quote people use from Talladega got used so far out of context that if you weren’t listening to team communications on the scanner, you got a convoluted story. Jimmie was not content to ride ninth in that race-he simply didn’t have a good enough car in the draft to contend for the win, and he knew it, so he chose to work where he was in the draft rather than to try to make a move and cause a wreck. That’s responsible racing, not only for his own team, but for theose around him. If you don’t have the car, you don’t have the car. It’s a shame TV didn’t see fit to play the entire conversation, not just the snippet thay used.

Señor Obvious
10/21/2008 03:25 PM

Ken, if you truly believe that David Pearson and Cale Yarborough won every one of their races and championships without a little help from the gray areas, then you are truly naive.

True, Rick Hendrick paid extra to get sufficient stock for his Honda dealership, but what some call a “felony” I call free enterprise. Get over it. The Feds have. Besides, even Junior Johnson was a felon. That makes Hendrick more old school than any other owner, save Gene Haas, out there.

Michael. The competition was stronger? You mean the competition that was made up of a handful of circuit regulars and the rest of the field filled with regional and local drivers. That’s the stronger competition? You might want to rethink that since even David Pearson has said otherwise.

Besides, driving ability only comes into play at road courses where they actually have to drive.

You all might want to try thinking before you hit that submit button at the bottom of this thing.

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
10/21/2008 03:36 PM

As long as everybody is throwing around the felon card….

I find it kind of funny that both car owners here who have/will win three consecutive titles – Junior Johnson and Rick Hendrick….both received Presidential Pardons for their felonies.

Johnson was pardoned by Ronald Reagan, Hendrick by Bill Clinton.

One Republican
One Democrat

Who says NASCAR isn’t diverse?!

10/21/2008 05:59 PM

Yes, the competition was much “ stronger” . And the reason should be “obvious” . David Pearson was competing against all of the other greats every week . Petty , Yarborough , Earnhardt , Allison , they were all in the same race . Driving skills ? The cars of the sixties and seventies required tremendous skills on every type of track . They didn’t have brake recirculators for Martinsville . They just had to conserve brakes any way they could . Many drivers didn’t even have cool suits . Skinny , rock hard tires , many early cars didn’t have power steering . Almost stock seats with no side support . Very basic suspension geometry . Not to mention the fact that the track surfaces were not so great in those days . Actually, it really is easy to make comparisons between the drivers of today and the drivers of the past . Richard , Cale , Dale , David Bobby ,and the others were true race drivers . They had virtually no technology , just driving ability and desire .

Señor Obvious
10/21/2008 08:14 PM

Michael, putting Earnhardt with Pearson, Petty and Allison is like putting Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon with Bill Elliott and Darrell Waltrip. Sure, they were on the same track, but they were not at the same quality point in their careers.

Power steering? Cool suits? None of those guys, save Earnhardt, were competitive when those became the norm. And since they didn’t have power steering, they never had to deal with trying to wheel that car around with a bad pump. I take it you’ve never driven a car that wasn’t equipped with power steering. If you had, you’d know that that wasn’t anything compared to saving the bias-ply tires. Until Geoff Bodine started running power steering though, no one had it week in and week out.

All of those make the driver more comfortable. They do not however, change the quality of competition, and back before Earnhardt won his second championship, you just didn’t see more than two thirds of the field as regulars.

Back when Petty and Pearson were going at it, it was an even lower percentage, and only a few of those were really competitive. So no matter how hard you try to paint this rosy revisionist picture of how great they were back in the day, sorry, it’s just not true. They were great, but they wouldn’t be close to being as successful if they had to race against even the middle of the field these days.

It’s easy to look good when you’re racing against people that are well below your skill level and financial wherewithall. And that’s what happened with Petty, Allison(s), and Yarborough. When you have to run against 50 other teams week in and week out that are not that far off the mark, it’s a whole lot “stronger” field and a whole lot more competitive than back in the day.

10/21/2008 10:03 PM

Hey, I think we need to lay off the felon thing. Rick Hendrick might have done some dishonest things, but I think he paid the price with the loss of his son, his brother, other family members. God forgives, so can we.

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