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Voice of Vito: Media Crowning Johnson Champion Halfway Through Chase Lazy & Irresponsible

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!”

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’s 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 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.

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 bump-drafting taking precedence over patience, restraint and prudent driving.

Remember 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.”

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