Just when it seemed the news couldn’t get much worse for NASCAR, here comes just what the doctor didn’t order: Another Jimmie Johnson win.
With all due respect to the four-time defending Cup Series champion, his victory in Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway wasn’t exactly the jolt that NASCAR needed as it looks to recover from a 2009 marred by empty seats and declining television ratings.
Already reeling from the embarrassment of a pothole on the track that forced a nearly 2.5-hour stoppage to the season-opening Daytona 500, NASCAR needed to bounce back in a big way in week No. 2.
That might have happened with a win on Sunday by second-place finisher Kevin Harvick, or third-place Jeff Burton. The two Richard Childress Racing teammates struggled mightily in 2009, failing to find victory lane and missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup. A victory by either at California would have been epic.
Ditto for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 32nd with a broken axle a week after electrifying his vast fanbase with a rally to second in the last two laps of the Daytona 500.
Any of these scenarios would have provided a nice storyline and allowed fans to forget about the mysterious hole that buried any chance of NASCAR’s biggest race being any better than a mild-to-moderate success.
But instead of Harvick snapping a three-year losing streak or Junior backing up his Daytona effort with another strong outing, there was driver No. 48 celebrating career win No. 48 in front of an already sparse gallery of fans.
And the way Johnson won – by inheriting the lead by staying out when the other leaders pitted under a caution with 27 laps to go – made matters even worse. If Johnson had been just a tick slower during his earlier stop under green, he’d have been trapped a lap down. Instead, he was the last car on the lead lap when the caution flag waved and cycled to the front when everyone else hit pit road for service.
A nightmare start for NASCAR? That might be going a little too far. But the first two weeks of 2010 haven’t exactly been a smashing success either.
What NASCAR needs more than anything right now is credibility and entertainment value.
At Daytona, it lacked in the first area. At California, it came up short in the second.
NASCAR needed Johnson to win the season’s second race about as bad as Bruce Springsteen needs another Grammy.
Fresh off a record-setting fourth consecutive series crown, Johnson could probably take a six-week sabbatical from racing and it wouldn’t hurt NASCAR’s feelings. That’s because it’s widely assumed – and likely true – that his total domination of the sport the last four years has only hurt NASCAR’s fan appeal. An unpopular driver always winning, the debut of a new model car that is hard to drive and a tough economy cramping the flow of sponsorship dollars have been a bad combination for a sport that only a few years ago was seemingly on a sharp upward trend.
NASCAR, to its credit, appears to realize its less-than-optimal predicament and has taken measures to improve the racing and allow drivers to show their true colors both on and off the track. But the one thing NASCAR can’t dictate is who wins and who loses.
Even if the economy improves, drivers are trading blows every week and every race features a four-wide battle for the win on the final lap, there’s still the Johnson factor.
Up until now, the one silver lining behind Johnson’s success is that he usually doesn’t hit his stride until late in the season and in time for the 10-race championship-determining segment.
If the Hendrick Motorsports driver is running this well this early, look out. He could make his four previous championship seasons seem like down years. And nothing would be worse for NASCAR.