It’s hard to believe a sport’s most successful athlete can go through a season all but forgotten.
But it’s a feeling Jimmie Johnson knows all too well at this point.
Heading into Dover this weekend, Johnson didn’t find himself buried amongst the NASCAR news as of late… he hasn’t even made it to the back pages. In fact, it had gotten to the point where the three-time defending series champ – let’s just pause for dramatic effect here – wasn’t even in the top-five biggest stories within Hendrick’s rapidly expanding umbrella. As the engines fired at Dover on Sunday, those could be listed as:
1) Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets a new crew chief (overblown to the point this should be written in 72-point font while you scream “Oh, my God!” like a teenage girl)
2) Jeff Gordon’s ailing back (do the words “early retirement” mean anything to you?)
3) Ryan Newman as the hottest driver on the circuit for Stewart-Haas Racing (otherwise known as Hendrick “B”)
4) Tony Stewart about to lead the points as a driver/owner for Hendrick “B”
5) Mark Martin turning back the clock with two wins at 50
Nowhere on that list do you find the sport’s winningest driver this decade, entering this season attempting to do what most once thought impossible in the modern era: four straight Sprint Cup championships. It’s a feat whose pursuit alone would inspire millions to head through the turnstiles if the last name were Petty, Earnhardt or Yarborough. But for NASCAR’s version of “Mr. Vanilla,” postseason brilliance always seems to get lost amidst his workmanlike approach to the regular season. In fact, any news from our reigning champ in 2009 has been more about what he can’t do than what he can. There’s concern over the inability to captivate a fanbase despite having one of the most successful three-year runs in modern history; contempt over a second-place surrender at Darlington in which he publicly put up the white flag with 10 laps left; and curiosity over a beard he just can’t bear to shave despite seemingly universal public outcry against it. (At this point, I’m just waiting for someone to sneak up on him with an electric razor and just take care of business.)
Anyways, that’s left NASCAR’s most successful driver an annoying distraction at best in a year where there’s been other more pertinent things to talk about. It’s almost as if Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and company have become a version of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs: so good so often they make running up front seem like a 9-to-5… and people would rather not look at sports like a day job.
But no matter how we try to avoid it, in the real world that day job eventually comes calling no matter how much you want it to disappear. And on Sunday, we were reminded the No. 48 is still clearly the car to beat no matter how much we throw them under the radar this time of year.
In a word, Johnson was dominant at Dover. Leading 298 of the final 352 laps, the Lowe’s Chevrolet enjoyed upwards of a seven-second advantage at times while remaining virtually untouchable in the lead. But perhaps his latest, greatest claim to fame was a gut-wrenching drive back to the front over the final 31 laps. Dropping from first to eighth after his final four-tire stop of the day, Johnson sliced and diced through the field like a man possessed – including a breathtaking move in which he drove in the middle of Gordon and Martin Truex Jr. as if they were stopped. Before you knew it, he was blowing by Stewart to take first place on lap 398 and sitting in victory lane.
“He was like a freight train coming,” said Stewart, quickly forced to settle for second on a day we all got reminded of what happens when the No. 48 clicks on all cylinders. “I mean, I was surprised I could hold him off as long as I did, but I was pretty happy that we were able to do it for that long.”
And so it went, as Johnson coasted to victory while quietly polishing yet another resume good enough for the postseason. The victory was his second of the season, leaving him better off in both wins, top 10s (eight) and points rank (third) than he was at this point in 2008. And while others have flashier numbers, Johnson is right on schedule with a team that uses the regular season as a giant test for when the races really count.
Not that they’ll ever let you know it.
“We come to the racetrack every single event with the hope and the desire to try to win,” Knaus claimed. “That’s been our mindset since we started in 2002.”
“As far as us peaking or starting to win races too soon, you can never win races too soon.”
Johnson’s career record speaks differently, of course, with eleven of his last fifteen wins coming in the final third of the season – including the 10-race Chase he’s mastered so well. And while the rest of the world around him may have tried to forget that this Spring, he’s never taken his eyes off the prize – leaving their car in perfect position to get fine-tuned while the rest of the organization takes away their distractions.
“For us, teammates are family, and we want our teammates to be successful and win races and championships and all those things,” Johnson said in assessing the Junior upheaval that’s only the latest saga in owner Rick Hendrick’s dominant but dramatic season. “So, in one respect it is difficult. But at the same time, we have to worry about what the No. 48 team is doing and how our performance is.”
“Once we get into the motions of the weekend, we’re just really worried about our setup of the car and our strategy and our shocks, our tires and really into our world. Once the helmets go on and once cars fire up and we’re on track, that’s really the easiest part.”
For the last three years, Johnson and company have carved a Hall of Fame career out of making the on-track action look easy. And while his win gives us a one-week wakeup call before he slips back into oblivion, it’s important to wonder when or if that’s ever going to stop. For while Johnson may be NASCAR’s Mr. Boring… he’s also clearly established as Mr. Prohibitive favorite, a repeat news cycle in a year where the sport could desperately use new blood. And perhaps the most disheartening thing for those looking to inject that energy is the lack of true rivals to stop him. Kyle Busch, you say? He’s as inconsistent and irritable as ever. Carl Edwards? Stuck with the AFLAC duck lying a giant goose egg on his victory lane total. Stewart? In line to get the real “B” equipment once the playoffs begin. In truth, the parity this season has merely increased Johnson’s stature come Chase time, as no one has stepped up long enough consistently enough to at least draw a thought they’re in shape to fend off the relentless run of wins and top-five finishes that will be a given for the No. 48 in the fall.
That leaves NASCAR’s Mr. Boring in a class all his own, unable to shed that label despite a track record and exciting comeback Sunday that deserves everyone’s respect. But when there’s no choice but for him to become the No. 1 story… will fans still be willing to read?
That’s a million dollar question – as in millions of dollars in lost ratings, souvenir sales and attendance – the sport quietly hopes it doesn’t finds out.
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