NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Jimmie Johnson Gives Fans Plenty to Talk About – But Really, Now…

Halfway through the Chase for the 2009 Sprint Cup, things are… well, things are predictable. Jimmie Johnson has the points lead (I know, shocker). No. 48 haters, can, I suppose, take heart in one statistic: no winner of the fall race at Charlotte has ever gone on to win the whole shebang. But really, around NASCAR Kingdom, many fans and media are firmly (if prematurely) focused on Johnson. Part of that is natural – Johnson is, after all, the reigning (and reigning and reigning) series champion, and that alone draws a certain amount of scrutiny. Being the point leader five races from the end is going to draw attention. There have been four pervading storylines focused on the No. 48 this week, and there have been a whole lot of headlines surrounding them.

The problem is, all four are a bit… er, misguided.

Thing One flying around is the seeming willingness to hand Johnson the Cup trophy right now. While he does have the biggest lead ever in the Chase after five races, this is also the first time that Talladega Superspeedway isn’t included in those first five races. And Talladega just might be the one thing to level the playing field in a way that NASCAR cannot. Unless a driver has a full race worth of points lead heading in, there is a complete chance that that driver will come out without the lead when the smoke clears and the carnage is counted. And Johnson’s record at Talladega, though vastly improved in recent years, is spotty at best. Restrictor-plate racing is Johnson’s weakest skill, though he’s still better than many drivers – but even if he’s picture perfect, there’s no guarantee that someone else won’t cause the wreck that sweeps him up. And with just three races to go after ‘Dega, making up lost points will be a tall order.

Sure, Johnson is a hell of a clutch driver, and his large points lead bodes well for an unprecedented fourth Cup title, but the record books aren’t written yet. Best not to go handing out trophies before the last lap – just ask Derrike Cope how that works out.

Thing Two, with all due respect to the Cat in the Hat (the real one, not Jack Roush), is that the Chase schedule was somehow created by NASCAR in an attempt to help Johnson win the title – and that it should be changed. Now, just hold on here. First of all, the schedule was not altered when the Chase was devised. The final 10 races are the same as they were before the Chase, so NASCAR really didn’t just sit down and think, “Hmmmm… how can we let this one guy win multiple titles? I KNOW! We’ll stack the last 10 races so he will magically avoid every wreck, equipment failure and anything else, and dominate this Chase thingy.”

I suppose NASCAR could restructure the Chase to include Johnson’s 10 worst tracks. In order to do that, they would need both restrictor-plate tracks, both road courses, Bristol, Indianapolis, Richmond, Homestead, Las Vegas and Michigan. I’m fairly certain a lot of teams other than Johnson’s would be pretty unhappy with that schedule – as would a lot of fans. And my guess is that a restructure would only make Johnson’s team redouble their efforts at those tracks, which would probably yield similar results to what they do now. Not only that, but the last time NASCAR tried to penalize excellence (by restricting Toyota’s horsepower in the Nationwide Series) instead of allowing the other teams to catch up on their own, it created a very much deserved backlash from fans and media. If it was wrong then, it’s wrong now. You can’t have it both ways.

Thing Three (We’ve now stretched beyond Seuss, folks!) that I’m tired of hearing about is how Johnson’s dominance (or Junior’s slump or Jeff Gordon’s very existence) is somehow “bad for the sport.” No, it’s not. NASCAR has worse problems than a nice guy who drives clean winning multiple titles. Think about that – in itself, it’s the result of one of NASCAR’s gimmicks to attract fans – had NASCAR left the points system alone, you’d theoretically have seen three different champions in the last three years. The Top-35 rule, terrible television broadcasts and lackluster racing are all far bigger problems than Johnson winning a few races a year. If one driver winning a lot of races and championships was that detrimental, how on Earth did the sport survive Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt or Gordon?

Johnson’s dominance simply coincides with the inevitable – all the new, casual fans that jumped on the NASCAR bandwagon at its height because NASCAR was suddenly the cool thing to talk about around the water cooler have jumped right back off and moved on to the next trend. They weren’t so much fans of the sport, they were fans of the fad. Now that it’s over, the original core fans feel alienated by all the changes that NASCAR made in their vain attempt to hang onto the bandwagoneers. And Johnson didn’t invent any of it – he was just along for the ride.

Finally, Thing Four (these Things really do multiply…) is the assertion that if Johnson is winning, his crew chief, Chad Knaus, must be cheating. Given that the sanctioning body has cracked down harder on Knaus than anyone else for the past four years or so, that’s pretty hard to buy. The No. 48 has been taken and torn down after the last four races in a row and passed every inspection NASCAR put it through. The non-story that they almost broke a rule is getting old – you can find 20 or more cars on the racetrack every week that almost break a rule, but the fact is, they’re legal. Almost gets neither a cigar nor a penalty.

The fact is, the No. 48 has played within the rules at every race. One columnist actually wrote that if Knaus is legal within the rulebook, then he must be cheating in an area not covered by the rulebook. The problem with that theory is… that isn’t cheating. It’s been done since the first NASCAR race and will be done long after Johnson and Chad Knaus retire. If it’s not outside of a written rule, it’s legal. In order to cheat, you have to break an actual rule. If NASCAR chooses to MAKE a rule based on someone working outside the lines of the rule book, well, then it’s a rule and the teams had better abide by it from then on. Here’s a novel idea – Johnson’s team wins because they are just that good.

With five races to go in the Chase, there should be three dozen storylines focused on a dozen drivers, so why all the hype over something that hasn’t happened yet to a driver who hasn’t done anything but drive his bottom off for the last three Chases? Some fans claim jealousy, others claim NASCAR poster boy. Many don’t like Johnson because he gets so much coverage, and yet they keep talking about him. But whatever the reason, keep this in mind; Johnson’s team doesn’t care what people say, and they are just that good.

With five races to go, isn’t it time we all found something else to talk about?

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