He may not be the most popular driver and he may seem a bit “vanilla” to some, but Jimmie Johnson is without question one of the best to ever strap into a racecar. Earning his fourth straight NASCAR title Sunday night (Nov. 22), Johnson separated himself from some of the greatest in the 61-year history of the sport.
Johnson is now one of only four drivers to win four championships (the others being Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon), but among those NASCAR greats, Johnson is the only driver to win them all in a row. Last year’s hoopla was Johnson’s chance to tie Cale Yarborough by winning three straight titles; but this year, the attention is all squarely on him for breaking the record.
This team has set the bar since joining the Cup Series ranks full time in 2002. In each of their eight years, the No. 48 organization has finished in the top five in the season-ending standings, maturing along with NASCAR’s new playoff format that came into existence during his third year. Working together with crew chief Chad Knaus, he has more wins (18) and top 10s (55) then anyone in the 60-race history of the Chase.
One of the biggest contributors and advantages the No. 48 team has had during its championship run is the man calling the shots atop the pit box. Knaus came up through the Hendrick organization learning from one of the greatest crew chiefs in the business, Ray Evernham. Since taking over as crew chief for Johnson, Knaus has set himself apart from his competition. One of the most methodical and calculated guys in the garage area, winning is a way of life for him and he conducts his team accordingly.
The road to history has not always been easy, though. Struggles on the track and Knaus’s suspensions over the years for rules violations have made this team dig deep to get the job done. But whenever they hit a string of bad luck and were behind the 8-ball, everyone in the organization stepped up and performed to the best of their ability.
“Just when you think you’ve seen everything, a guy goes out and finishes four in a row and Hendrick finishes 1-2-3 in the points,” Gordon said. “As a competitor, that Johnson ticks me off. As a friend, a teammate and sort of car owner they’re amazing. I’m really happy for [Johnson], Chad and the entire [No.] 48 team… I really never thought I’d see in my career or my lifetime somebody win four in a row.”
Yet despite his success on the track, Johnson has become a guy fans love to hate. The dislike for Johnson is not exactly at say, Kyle Busch levels, but boos ring loud when Johnson is introduced each week. The general idea is that he is a polished driver that has the best equipment. A clean-cut native of California, Johnson has not always related to the blue-collar fans… but while that may be the feeling amongst some, the drivers themselves know better.
“I know the garage really respects what they have done and really realizes how hard it is for that happen,” Kevin Harvick said. “To win a championship in this sport four times in a row is something pretty remarkable. I think it’s time for the fans to give the credit that he deserves. That is the most dominant team we have sitting in this garage, and they deserve that respect.”
“I will say that as much as he wins and everything happens, Jimmie’s one of those guys you want to hate, but he’s one of the best guys out here,” Jamie McMurray added. “I think that he is very deserving of what he has.”
And what he and the Hendrick organization now have is their own page in the history books of NASCAR.
“I think that’s got to say how impressive this Lowe’s team is and what a great, fantastic driver Jimmie Johnson is,” Knaus said after the race. “Jimmie is an incredible, incredible talent. He is the most underrated driver in this garage from a perspective of media recognition and stuff like that. He can do things with a racecar that I’ve never seen done before and I hope this proves it to everybody.”
When asked where he ranks among the sport’s best drivers, Johnson admitted this accomplishment puts him up there. He has earned his fourth title quicker than Petty, Earnhardt and Gordon. Over the last eight years, Johnson has 47 wins, 117 top fives and 180 top 10s in 291 races.
“I have a lot of racing ahead of me, so it is tough to really say at this point,” Johnson said. “We’ve have covered some territory in a short period of time and I feel the years ahead of us we can even get higher in the record books.”
The scariest thing for the competition is the No. 48 team shows no signs of slowing. Come next year, they’ll once again be the team to beat. Knaus even admitted they have been working on 2010 for the last two months.
So congratulations to Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus, Rick Hendrick and the entire No. 48 team. There are rare moments in sports in which history of this magnitude is made, and witnessing it is something every competitor, media member and fan should be appreciative of.
Jay W. Pennell is a freelance writer. He can be contacted through his blog.
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