The Nextel Cup season finale did not end in as dramatic a fashion as I thought it might. In my column last week, I speculated on any number of intriguing scenarios that could play out during the running of the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But for any truly remarkable and unanticipated finish in determining the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion to take place, Jimmie Johnson would have had to either finish poorly… or not at all. Turns out he did nothing of the sort. Johnson, in true championship form, took charge of his destiny, driving through the field after pit-road repairs for an early-race mishap and finishing ninth. It was a result that allowed him to claim his first career Nextel Cup title with relative ease over his closest competition.
Johnson’s season ending performance left no doubts as to who was the best of the best in 2006. The ninth-place finish, as solid as it was, was his worst finish in six races. His champion’s title was earned, not giftwrapped, and as a result Johnson joins a select list of greats in auto racing that can be called NASCAR Cup champion. It’s a prestigious list that’s developed over the last 57 years, one that include greats of the sport such as Richard and Lee Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Ned Jarrett, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jeff Gordon. Inclusion in this who’s who of NASCAR racing is truly noteworthy… and inarguably earned.
There is no greater accomplishment in motorsports today than winning the Nextel Cup championship. No other auto racing series on the planet tests the drivers and the team’s mettle as much as NASCAR’s top series. Some might attempt to argue that statement; but before doing so, one should look at the series in its totality. With the brutally long season, the parity in competition, and the diversified track configurations and various driving skills required to be mastered on each of the individual tracks, NASCAR has clearly become more difficult than any other racing series in the world today.
Starting in mid-February with the running of the Daytona 500 and culminating at Homestead nine months later, the Cup competitor’s race in a total of 38 point and non-points races. The drivers and teams find themselves following a maddening schedule that has an event held in south Florida one weekend, only to be required to compete in southern California the next week; then from Nevada to Georgia, Arizona to Alabama, Michigan to northern California, Delaware to Kansas, or Virginia to Texas on consecutive weeks. The scheduling demands placed on the drivers and teams of the Nextel Cup Series are second to none.
As for the tracks themselves, to win a championship in the elite division of NASCAR, a driver must be able to master the art of racing in a draft that is encountered, in particular, at the true superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega. Restrictor-plate racing is an experience truly exclusive to NASCAR and requires experience and intuition that is unique. However, that same driver must become adept in the nuances that each track presents. There is the close-quarter, bump-and-grind style of racing that short tracks such as Martinsville and Bristol require. A driver must be accomplished at a track such as Darlington, where scraping the wall and running on wore out tires are the norm.
And then there are the 1.5-mile aero tracks that make for such difficult passing. Flat-track racing at tracks such as Loudon and Pocono call for drivers to modify their driving styles even further; they are a completely different type of older that trick even the most experienced men of the trade. A champion must also compete at Infineon and Watkins Glen, two very different road courses that call for skills not found on ovals. The NASCAR Cup schedule tests drivers’ skills on tracks from one-half mile to more than 2.5 miles in length, with each track having their own characteristics that set them apart from any other track on the circuit.
As for the competition any title contender must face each weekend, keep in mind the number of legitimate competitors for a race win have become increasingly greater. There are no less than 25 drivers/teams with reasonable expectations to enter Victory Lane at any given race throughout the season; in the IRL, CART or Formula 1, they never even qualify 25 drivers for their starting fields. A total of 13 different drivers won races in 2006; nine of those wins came from drivers that did not even qualify for the Chase to the Nextel Cup Championship. Those drivers with sub-top 10 years that won in ’06 included 2005 champ Tony Stewart (five wins), 2005 runner-up Greg Biffle (two wins), 2004 champion Kurt Busch and Brian Vickers.
That short list doesn’t even skim the surface of the drivers, teams, and owners that Johnson bested directly in a 10-race playoff to win his first Nextel Cup title. There were the Roush Racing teammates Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Winston Cup champion, and Mark Martin, the veteran four-time championship runner-up. There was rookie sensation Denny Hamlin, supported by Joe Gibbs Racing, an organization with three owner championships, including one with last year’s champion, Stewart. The list of accomplished drivers, teams and owners also included Kasey Kahne, leading all drivers with six wins for the year while driving for former three-time champion crew chief Ray Evernham.
The prestigious list of accomplished drivers and teams doesn’t stop there. Among Johnson’s competition during the championship run were teammates at Hendrick Motorsports Gordon, a four-time series champion, and impressive sophomore wheelman Kyle Busch. Old-school owner and winner of six owner championships Richard Childress saw two of his drivers compete against Johnson as well: 10-year veteran Jeff Burton, who has finished in the top 10 in points five times during his career, and Kevin Harvick, two-time Busch Series champion.
Beyond those who accomplished the highest degree of success in the sport lies a supporting cast well equipped to challenge even the most talented of drivers. The depth of the 43 car-starting field in NASCAR is truly astounding: scattered throughout the field in 2006 were many other accomplished drivers. There were previous Cup series winners and top-10 competitors like Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Ryan Newman, Jeremy Mayfield and Carl Edwards who raced beside Johnson every weekend. Every driver races for every position, no matter where they currently stand in the points: competition is fierce!
To qualify after 26 races for an opportunity to compete for the NASCAR championship is, in consideration of the extensive talent laden field of teams and drivers, a commendable achievement in itself. To then compete and outpoint the 10 best drivers and teams of the year and win the championship after that is simply beyond incredible.
Driver Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and owner Rick Hendrick and his organization are to be congratulated for their championship performance. Job well done!