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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Jimmie Johnson – Modern-Day Legend? 3rd Consecutive Title Would Put Him in Rare Company

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 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.

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 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 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 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. HMS 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 JGR for Toyota this year, some of Johnson’s closest competition has come from within in teammates 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 racecar 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 Martin. Everyone had to pit to make it to the end on fuel; 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, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton or Carl 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, 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 – Gordon.

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