The Frontstretch: Media Crowning Johnson Champion Halfway Through Chase Lazy and Irresponsible by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday October 21, 2009

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Media Crowning Johnson Champion Halfway Through Chase Lazy and Irresponsible

The Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday October 21, 2009

 

My uncle owns and operates an industrial lighting company, and has an interesting way of motivating people. Whenever they express the futility of the task at hand, he comes back and says, “You should probably just give up and quit, man. It’s too hard.”

Somehow, I think the rest of the media does not have that reverse psychology or that air of thinly veiled sarcasm in mind when they repeatedly state that the championship Chase has all but been decided, and that the final five races – half of the playoffs – are all but a formality for the No. 48 team of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. While I was trudging away on the elliptical machine at the gym Tuesday, the TV ad for the Martinsville race, when viewed with the sound off, painted a pretty stark picture — unless you were a fan of the No. 48, of course. Looking more like the highlight reel they roll at the awards banquet before presenting the new champion with his trophy, it was a video montage celebrating Lowe’s team while and ignoring their other 11 rivals – and 31 additional competitors.

Witness the scene in the media center this past weekend at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. The post-race press conferences of Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth, as well as Johnson and Knaus, were almost mirror images of each other. Broadcast on ESPN2’s late edition of NASCAR Now, virtually the only questions to either of these competitors that did not center on the championship all but being over were posed by our own Bryan Davis Keith and Mike Neff. The other questions were more like editorials, leading questions that all had the same common theme: “Johnson is going to win his fourth consecutive Sprint Cup title … what do you think?”

Not to toot my own horn or anything, but “beep beep.”

This continued phenomenon is anything but puzzling. One of the biggest issues NASCAR has been fighting the last couple of years has been dwindling ratings and the failure of its newfangled “playoff” system to gain much traction when going head-to-head with regular season NFL games or, God forbid, the World Series. So would it not serve everyone well to go Daughtry and bellow out “it’s not oooovverrrr…” a few weeks into this Chase? But no … everyone refuses to do so. Instead, from what I have been hearing and reading, everyone has been going Colonel Trautman, emphatically stating, “It’s over, Johnny!”

Well, to quote John J. Rambo: “NOTHING IS OVER! NOTHING! YOU JUST DON’T TURN IT OFF!”

While David Gilliland may not be driving the M&M’s car anymore, Gilliland…and the M&M’s car…both are still on track, causing trouble for many, Chase contender or not.

What the NASCAR Banking 500 provided was proof positive that anything can happen at any moment, and the Chase drivers are nearly as vulnerable as anybody within three car lengths of David Gilliland. Witness Juan Pablo Montoya’s No. 42 Chevrolet as an example, sandwiched in the middle of a restart accordion that squished closed faster than a squeezebox on Pulaski Days. The incident turned Juan Mon’s right rear quarter into a rudder that culminated in a spin in Turn 4, followed by the depositing of patch panels on the backstretch.

Need example number two? Mark Martin entered the night second in points, only 12 behind Johnson. But the run-in with Montoya on the restart punched a hole in the nose of the No. 5 Impala, sending it spiraling back through the field. After the team put a patch panel on the nose, it turned a 20th-place car into a 17th-place one.

And those were just the lucky ones who got a chance to finish the race. Carl Edwards called his engine failure a “mercy killing,” while Denny Hamlin’s FedEx Toyota was taken out for a ride in the country on lap 192 — both ended up with DNFs. Remember, an engine failure can reach out and bite anyone, particularly if the rubber band is wound a bit too tight. And we barely have to mention Brian Vickers’ disaster of a Chase continuing with a 34th-place finish, just ahead of Montoya.

So after seeing how the No. 48 would suddenly rocket forward halfway down the backstretch as if grabbing another gear, who’s to say a mechanical failure won’t happen in one of the upcoming races?

Yet while Jimmie Johnson is in position to make history by winning his fourth consecutive championship (I know, I know – different points systems…), the general public interest and support is all but non-existent. This is not to criticize Johnson, whose only weakness apparently is being boring (which in Great Britain is a capital offense) but highlights how this malaise not seen since the Carter Administration has seemingly washed over and infected NASCAR to its very core. Not even a playoff system that resets the points and gives 12 guys a shot at the title — when in reality it would be a three-way fight between Tony Stewart, Johnson, and Jeff Gordon — can do the trick to turn fans back on to the action.

Yet NASCAR remains the only sport where domination and excellence is reviled. This trait is not because of any defect in those who follow auto racing, it is because the passion and loyalty of racing fans, and NASCAR fans in particular, is unmatched in any arena, save for Scottish soccer hooligans. It is also because, unlike stick ‘n’ ball sports, the entire league plays the same game at once, every weekend.

That’s right everyone, that says 2008 Champion — not 2009.

Because of that, anybody can lose – and lose big – at any moment. So why is everyone so determined to fire up the Dremel and etch Johnson’s name into the trophy plaque with only half of the playoffs complete? As much as I am resistant to throw in the towel so quickly, previous performance and the past month unfortunately does give some credence to their argument. Three wins in the last four races, and a worst finish of ninth; those are some stats that even Richard Petty in his prime would be hard pressed to match.

But that isn’t just hyperbole, either; if you take The King’s most dominant modern era championship season of 1975, his final 10 races produced four wins, a second, a third, and finishes of 16th, 22nd, 28th, and 35th. So couldn’t the same thing wind up happening to Johnson? According to much of the stories surrounding the NASCAR Banking 500 … apparently not. They all started out the same: “Jimmie Johnson will one day be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame …” Yes, he likely will. After tying Buck Baker for 13th on the all-time wins list with 46 victories Saturday night, the question that remains is will it be as a four-time consecutive champion or a three-time consecutive champion?

So can we all stop with the adulation for a second? In reality, it is a bit premature to consider the 2009 title a lock. There are two big potential landmines coming up – both tracks where Johnson has won before (including six of the last seven at Martinsville), but also tracks that really don’t care who you are or what you have done in the past. The close confines of Martinsville Speedway produce tight-quarters racing and brake abuse that borders on the inhumane.

When Talladega is taken into consideration, “The Big One” is still a threat, though it has been diminished slightly with the durability and heartiness of the CoT. Even with some bashed in fenders, the car can still go fast – if not faster, since it will create a smaller hole in the air. That does not mean that the danger has been eliminated, though. Quite the contrary; if anything, it has provided drivers a false sense of security, with bumpdrafting taking precedence over patience, restraint, and prudent driving.

Remember Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle’s dustup last year at Talladega? That should illustrate the possibility – and probability – that something ugly could happen at the Alabama track that has recycled more metal than an Alcoa plant.

The other three tracks that remain after The Paperclip and The Graveyard aren’t exactly walks in the park, either. Texas Motor Speedway may look like Charlotte, but it’s more like Atlanta in the way it can punish engines with sustained wound-out RPMs for 500 miles. Phoenix is essentially a big short track, and with only 312 laps to run; if you have trouble early, good luck digging out of that hole before the race is over. More than one championship over the years changed hands at Phoenix, so it should not be a track to ignore or belittle.

That would leave the final event of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway — and if there is one track that could haunt the No. 48 team, it just may be this one. Kurt Busch narrowly beat Johnson here for the title by a mere eight points in 2004; the inaugural Nextel Cup went down to the very last lap, with six drivers entering the race with a shot at winning it all. In 2005, a blown rear tire and trying to do too much with too little ended Johnson’s title hopes with a crash in the closing laps. While that was four years, many wins, and three championships ago, it underscores how fickle racing luck can be; literally anything can happen at any time.

So while you may be reading articles from other racing sites, your local hack sports editor stuck with writing a racing column, or watching a television program that panders to the flavor of the week, all but convinced that it is over, think again. The Chase if halfway through… but by no means finished. Accidents, punctured tires, untimely cautions, fuel follies, mechanical maladies, or any number of problems can befall anybody at any time. For those in the media to be waving the white flag in more ways than one is fatalistic, cowardly, and — as far as I am concerned — downright irresponsible.

My uncle’s needlings aside, I am also reminded of a couple of quotes from General George S. Patton regarding moving forward in the face of adversity: “You are never beaten until you admit it,” he said, along with “If a man gives his all, what else is there?”

Perhaps some of those that have chosen to cover auto racing and NASCAR in particular should take this saying to heart. Nobody should be giving up at this point in the game, whether those competing on the track or crushing Krispy Kremes in the press room on race weekend.

To echo one more line from one of our greatest wartime generals, “If everyone is thinking alike… someone isn’t thinking.”

Contact Vito Pugliese

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Mike
10/21/2009 07:45 AM
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It’s over! Accept it! Jimmie Johnson cannot be beat in any way! He will have the Championship wrapped up by Phoenix! There is nobody, repeat nobody, who can beat him, not even his own teammates Mark, Jeff, and Tony are a match for him and Chad! And why not? Jimmie is the greatest driver in NASCAR with the best Crew Chief ever and the greatest car owner ever, so he deserves it! Put his name on the trophy!

Bill B
10/21/2009 07:49 AM
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Put your money where your mouth is. I’ll take Johnson you take the rest of the field. How much you want to bet?

josie
10/21/2009 07:52 AM
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I am glad you have pointed out the obvious..anything can happen….right now..it’s all happening to JJ’s competitors! I am not a JJ fan..to me whether it’s 3 or 4 championships..there will always be an asterisk next to his stats in the record book..a “10 race” championship is not the same as a “36 race” championship. But..I digress. I love all forms of racing..but lately I have found just about any other type of racing is more exciting..more interesting then CUP. But..I will continue to watch..at times looking away..as the 48 car laps the field..as it stands now I don’t watch post race coverage if JJ wins..and I have given up watching the prerace show because they spend the entire time kissing the 48’s butt and ignoring the other 42 drivers or touting how “no one can beat him”. Well..I would think with the lagging ratings and attendance the media would want to at least “create” some excitement to lure the fans in..at least “act” like something could happen..instead it’s all about the 48. So..does the media really feel this way? Want it to be this way? Don’t care and just want to get this season over with? All get paid by Hendrick? AND the media spend alot of time wondering why the fans don’t adore the 48..and telling us why we should… WELL the answer is..the 48, CK, and Hendrick did this to themselves…the driver is bland, the crew chief has a “shady” past..and despite the “touchy feely” movie that came out..Hendrick is no choir boy himself. So…it is what it is. I will continue to root for whoever is not the 48..and hope at least there will be someone who can step up and challenge the 48..because they have the better car that day…or they wreck and drop alot of sharp metal in the 48’s path!

Ghost of Curtis Turner
10/21/2009 08:26 AM
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I hate to say it but it is Jimmy’s to lose but he won’t. (God I hate to say this too)….but we are witnessing the best driver, crew chief team since Smokey and Fire Ball. For better or worse, like him or hate him Chad Knaus is Smokey Yunick come back to haunt us. He and that Robot masquerading as a Race Car Driver Jimmy Johnson just have it. They are just scary good…..they have this piece of crap car figured out, they had the old car figured out too.

Like I said Chad Knaus is the Ghost of Smokey Yunick come to take us all to Hell in a flaming CoT.

Scott
10/21/2009 08:57 AM
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Maybe JJ will win it again, and if he does, then he does. What I’m sick of is hearing about it before the green even dropped at Daytona. Sad. What else is sad is if he wins it this year, I’m gone. After 30 years following the sport, this would be the final nail in the coffin. the 90s were good. The 2000s? Not. A glut of boring tracks, cookie cutter cars, dilution of what used to be the Busch series, and bland personalities have pretty much killed what made NASCAR so much fun to watch. I used to only tune out for Michigan, now I tune out for half the schedule – LV, Kansas, Chicago, Michigan, Homestead, Texas, and California. I miss the times when a driver could tell another he was ‘number one’ and not get a fine. I miss looking out there and knowing just by the profile which was a Ford and what was a Chevy (or Buick\Pontiac\Oldsmobile). I miss ‘creative’ engineering. I miss ‘rattling his cage.’ I miss knowing that if the 3 or the 24 was going to win the the Cup and it was decided early, it was because they dominated the whole season and deserved it. I miss the rivalry between Dale and Rusty, or a rivalry between ANYONE. I miss tuning into Saturday’s race to watch Ard and Miller duke it out without having it be for 10th place because all of the Cup guys. Even more recently, Jr and Kenseth, or the Burton brothers. It is sad when 2 of the strongest personalities currently came from other countries (and I love them for what they bring to the sport). I guess I just miss the days when NASCAR was the best sport on the planet. I’m glad HDT now is showing WRC, I think it is becoming one of the last real racing left on the planet. Even the truck series has lost its luster, and that really sucks because in recent years, it has been the best racing in NASCAR on TV.
I’d love to see 1992 all over again. Remember that year? It was Allison and Elliot’s to lose.

…and they did. I hope history repeats itself, else I’ll be needing to find something else to watch come February.

lydia
10/21/2009 09:16 AM
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What’s up with the media forcing JJ down our throats? Why is it so important to the media we all love JJ and think he is the second coming? I am not a JJ fan..never have been (even before all his winning ways) and never will be. I really don’t care about his winnings or dominance or anything else. But..the media insists we love him..and why? To keep their jobs..If the fans don’t adore and revel in JJ’s triumphs then viewership is down, tickets go unsold, driver “toy” sales are down, and columns go unread. It’s all about jobs..not about being a “fan”. I have nothing against JJ fans, Junior fans, Gordon fans etc. etc. … I don’t recall this big of you gotta love him “media push” for any other driver in NASCAR history… If the media is worried about the survival of NASCAR…a.k.a…..their own jobs..they should write about other drivers and teams…and when I say write about them..I don’t mean “write an article to compare how badly JJ is beating them”. Just because you have one kid getting straight “A’s” on their report card doesn’t mean you disregard their “floundering” siblings.. Get a grip…write about all the drivers and teams..show all the drivers and teams during a race..it may spur the fans interest and things may turn around alittle.

lydia
10/21/2009 09:23 AM
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To add…for years the media has pushed Junior down our throats..even gone so far as to say the ratings of NASCAR are down this year due to the poor performance of Junior. IF that is so..it is the media’s fault. Years were spent writing over and over about Junior..every race we see Junior over and over on the tv screen…with the headlines “the face of NASCAR”. Well how’s that working out for everyone? With all the media hype there are alot of “zombies” for fans..Junior does good..ratings up..Junior does bad..ratings down. If the media had spent as much time on the other 42 drivers in the field maybe there would be more interested… The media..and NASCAR only has themselves to thank..you created “Stepford Wives” for fans..and now that Junior is doing dismal..you are trying to replace him with JJ…So let’s see how this is going to work for you!!!

Mark
10/21/2009 09:42 AM
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Carefull Vito , your job might be on the line after this column . There is no bigger cheerleader for Johnson than your boss . How many of his columns declaring Johnson and Hendrick as the second coming have we had to endure ?
The auto racing media for the most part is too lazy to actually come up with a story idea and do the necessary work . They just slightly alter the popular story of the day and print it as their own idea . Go to the index of articles for Jayski and scroll down the list . Out of 50 or so writers’ columns , 40 will have the same story line in their title .
The Johnson/Knaus team is only god-like in the eyes of people who don’t know much about auto racing . And of course their method of winning is is , and always has been suspect . But it isn’t the fact that fans don’t care about Johnson , its the fact that NASCAR has so badly mis-managed the championship that no one cares about the outcome .
If and when Johnson wins the fourth , or tenth straight title , the reaction will be so what . Its a manipulated contrived championship that in comparison to the past really means nothing . You’re right to mention the fact that Johnson has only won championships in the chase format . That tells you all you need to know about how important his 4 straight titles will be .

mkrcr
10/21/2009 09:52 AM
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“Accidents, punctured tires, untimely cautions, fuel follies, mechanical maladies, or any number of problems can befall anybody at any time”.
The one thing that won’t befall Knaus is failing tech. I’m sure NA$CAR is keeping a close eye and I’m quite sure he’s learned his lesson. Yea,right and there’s no more steroids in baseball.

Ken
10/21/2009 10:15 AM
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I’ve been a fan of NASCAR since I saw the high lights of a convertible race at Darlington when Fred Lorenzen and Curtis Turner were banging fenders together! And except for 1997, when I was going through a divorce, I have attended at least one race a year since 1981. This year however, is the last straw! I haven’t watched a race since Daytona in July, and I haven’t attended a race this year at all! If Jimmie does take his fourth-in-a-row, this will be the end of NASCAR for me. The TV is all Jimmie! Jimmie! Jimmie! The races stink! The sport is in a downward spiral decine. I did however watch about two minutes of “Raceday”, but as soon as Kenny Wallace started into his love affair with Jimmie, I turned it off. Yes, after nearly 50 years of being a NASCAR fan, it’s finally over for me! Thank’s a lot, Brian! You can have your poor excuse of a sport! This fan finally is moving on!

Bill B
10/21/2009 10:19 AM
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I just want to point out to some of these commenters that the reason the media writes only stories about the top 5 or 6 most popular drivers isn’t due to laziness it’s due to dollars and cents. If you write a story about Jr you get 250,000 hits on the website. If you write a story about David Stremme you get 25,000. Then when you go to advertisers to sponsor the site they want to know how many people visit your website daily, weekly, yearly. The bigger the number the more they are willing to pay to advertise. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how you can raise that number… write more stories about Jr, JJ, Gordon, Stewart, etc.

Also keep in mind that whomever is winning or doing well is naturally going to get more stories written about them. If Jimmie Johnson wins on Sunday, there will be a hundred article written about it the following week. As an example, you haven’t seen too many Kyle Busch articles on the internet lately because he hasn’t been winning in Sprint Cup lately.
Anyway I just figured I’d make sure that everyone really understands that no one is pushing JJ down our throats, it’s just the natural result of him winning races and business decisions to increase hits on the website.

4EVER3
10/21/2009 10:56 AM
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If Jimmie wins,He wins.Maybe go for 5 next year.Thing is,He’s not won yet!

ginger
10/21/2009 11:33 AM
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I quit reading articles from most sites that have anything to do with any driver other than Jr since he is my driver.

I do admit I read all the Frontstretch articles no matter what the topic. It’s a matter of excellent writing even when I might disagree.

Okay Dudes and Dudettes, quit reading the JJ stories, and according to Bill B, there will be fewer of them.

HankZ
10/21/2009 01:11 PM
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Not so fast, Scott. Before the green at Daytona, the media picked Edwards to win it all, which, in turn, pissed off JJ. You can only imagine Hendrick telling Knaus and JJ that they had more work to do (to get more respect).

I’m gonna root for JJ. Why? To give a bland champion another bland trophy for bland racing at bland racetracks. When its all said and done, it will be rammed up BF’s backside.

We need change badly!

midasmicah
10/21/2009 02:06 PM
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Sorry Vito, but this sorry excuse for a championship is over. The fat lady not only sand, she farted on the rest of the field.

JohnP
10/21/2009 03:36 PM
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After watching almost every race, every season since 1996 I have only watched about 1/2 of them this year. The drivers are boring, the tracks are boring, the cars are boring. And now, the media “annointed” the Chase winner. It’s simply not the same as having to do good all 36 races like Gordon, Petty, Earnheart, the Labonte’s had to. Now if all I hear about is the pasty boy JJ, Im outa here. In 1996 Terry Labonte won the Cup, and three drivers could have going into the last race of the season at Atlanta. He won by 37 points over Jeff Gordon and 87 points over Dale Jarrett. The possible winner for the Cup changed all race long as positions changed. Edge of the seat racing. It’s all gone now. I’m seriously going to follow ARCA next year if their on tv. The Nationwide series is shot now to, the dumb asses in Daytona are now introducing the COT there. Just going to “dress” them a little different. I’m serious about the ACRA too. Maybe they arn’t so politically correct like the numb nuts at Nascar

alan
10/26/2009 03:31 PM
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maybe if jj wasnt doing everything the media was saying i would agree but the problem is he is doing exactly what they are saying..for the past 6 years he has gotten no respect by the media so guess what they are now pulling their foot out of their mouth and saying what has needed to be said since day one…and for all of you people threating to quit watching nascar….bye dont let the door hit you on your soar loser ass..sorry a guy that none of you like is winning but he is and is about to make history…so like it or leave it jj is by far the best driver and maybe the reason you dont see it is beacause you all admittingly dont watch it…maybe once you should stay tuned in to see how a real driver wins races and championships..if not go watch what ever makes you happy….because it is going to be a while before this guy stops winnning….

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