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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Jimmie Johnson is Not Unbeatable

Recently I was talking with my father, whom NASCAR lost as a fan at the end of 2006, or at the beginning of the No. 48 team’s four-year-and-counting championship reign, take your pick. He is aware, only because his son covers the sport, that Jimmie Johnson has won four straight titles. During the discussion of Johnson’s seemingly unending prominence, Dad got an incredulous look on his face for a moment and asked, “Why doesn’t someone just put him in the wall?”

As much as this sentiment may be shared by a sizable swath of NASCAR Nation, and as much as it may remind some how much they miss Dale Earnhardt, this article isn’t going to suggest that. Even if it would get some cheers, wrecking someone because he wins too much is poor sportsmanship. (Although I have to admit, I wasn’t there when guys raced to feed their families.)

But after seeing Johnson take two wins this year just on mind games, letting Jeff Gordon’s and Kurt Busch’s teams beat themselves worrying about what Chad Knaus was going to do, maybe folks should be reminded that the No. 48 team isn’t as invincible as it looks.

Part of the reason Jimmie seems so unstoppable is that each year, his toughest opponent has been a different driver. Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin have all been challengers to the throne, but none of them have sustained championship level performance through the last four seasons. Gordon and Edwards went winless the following season after battling Johnson for a title.

It does make it seem as if Johnson simply swats down anyone in his path and keeps rolling. The No. 48 team truly has been outstanding, and consistently so. They’ve won four straight by outpacing everyone else, not just through luck or points racing.

But if you think a fifth title is a lock for the No. 48 bunch, take a closer look at the four.

Commentators talk about Jimmie Johnson “mastering” the Chase format, and they have a point. Only two of Johnson’s four titles would have been won without the playoff. Had the whole season counted in 2007, he would have finished almost two full races behind Gordon, and in 2008 Edwards bested Johnson in total points (although the No. 48 team did play the last race conservatively). In 2006, Johnson would have edged Kenseth by four measly points. One position on the track in 36 races. A tenth of a second in the pits. That’s how much better Johnson was than Kenseth over the whole season.

Two titles in four years, one won by a hair, wouldn’t sound so overwhelming. Tony Stewart won two titles in four years (Stewart would have won with the old format in 2005 as well.) Smoke was considered one of the sport’s best by 2005, and still is, certainly, but I don’t remember crew chiefs worrying about what Greg Zipadelli was going to do too often.

This isn’t a knock on the Chase, although it deserves to be knocked; nor is it a knock on Johnson and a No. 48 team that dials it in come playoff time. We all know the argument that “they would have played the old format differently.” True. In pre-Chase years Jimmie was still a title contender every season. All we’re saying here is that there have only been two seasons where Johnson outran everyone for 36 races. As far as true long-term consistency, there are a few teams out there that do have what it takes to stay with the No. 48 crew.

Even with the playoff system, it’s not as though Johnson has run away from the field in every Chase. In 2006, he and Kenseth nearly went down to the wire, and three drivers – Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick – finished within 78 points of him. Kenseth finished 23rd at Kansas with a faulty car. Hamlin finished 21st at Talladega thanks to the big one and 28th at Charlotte. Harvick finished 32nd with a busted belt at Dover and 31st at Atlanta. Great as Johnson was in 2006, he did benefit from three drivers having just enough misfortune.

In 2007, Johnson turned white-hot at the end, racking up four straight victories before Homestead. Granted, there’s not a hell of a lot you can do about that. But Gordon scored two wins, six top fives and never finished lower than 11th in the 2007 Chase. In any of Johnson’s other championship seasons, that would have been good enough to beat him. It would have done so handily in 2006 and 2009.

Two years ago in 2008, Edwards got taken out in a crash at Talladega (which, unfortunately for this argument, was of his own making) and finished 29th. A week later he had a car problem at Charlotte and finished 33rd. But Carl came on with a Johnson-like surge at the end, scoring three wins and not finishing lower than fourth in the last five races. He lost by 69 points, a total probably less than the sum of a wreck at Talladega and a mechanical issue at Charlotte.

Last season Martin finished eighth or better in seven of the final 10 events. At Charlotte, Juan Pablo Montoya was brake-checked on a restart, causing Martin to run into him and damage the 5 car, which subsequently finished 17th. Then at Talladega, as always seems to happen, Martin was taken out of both the race and nearly out of title contention in a big one. (When the dust clears after every restrictor plate race, someone has always gotten shafted in the points.)

Martin lost by 41 points. Johnson didn’t race the slightest bit conservatively in Homestead, which is to his credit, but without Martin getting clipped and flipped at Talladega, we would have seen an entirely different dynamic in the season finale. Had he held the points lead going into the final race, after so many years coming up ever so short, I doubt Martin would have rolled over.

Not only has the No. 48 team not always crushed the competition in the Chase; they haven’t smoked the field during the regular season either. Not once in any of their championship seasons have they held the points lead going into the playoffs. Awarding points for wins gave Johnson the lead just once as the playoffs began; that was in 2007, when Gordon’s 300-plus points lead was wiped out.

It isn’t so difficult to conceive it possible that teams who beat the No. 48 for the first 26 races can beat them in the last ten.

The No. 48 hasn’t run away yet this year, either. Jimmie has won three of six events, and now leads Greg Biffle (zero wins) by just 14 points and Kenseth (zero wins) by 16. Whether that’s emblematic of a points system that needs an overhaul is a subject for another article. But for now a dominating team can be pulled right back into the thick of things with a broken rear axle.

OK, I’ve gone a little long here. What all of this means is that the No. 48 team has been both very good and a little bit lucky. What it also means is that drivers of the caliber of Kenseth, Gordon, Edwards and Martin and their teams can stay with them – which suggests that Stewart, Harvick, Hamlin or a Busch brother could do it too. Maybe they need a little bit more luck, maybe they just need to be a little bit better at one or two tracks, maybe their crew chiefs need to give up any semblance of a social life, but the No. 48 bunch isn’t as head and shoulders above the competition as they look.

They are great. They win a lot. So did Earnhardt and Gordon. Both drivers once seemed unstoppable. Then someone came along and stopped them.

A team that wants to be the one to take down the No. 48 gang needs to focus solely on Chase tracks, have the driver keep the car in one piece, and not be so intimidated that they get reckless and bump draft a teammate in the corner. And be ready to pounce if the No. 48 falters.

Of course, with NASCAR’s new policy of no policies, there’s always a chance that someone might just put the No. 48 car in the wall.

So for all you fans of drivers not named Jimmie Johnson, don’t throw up your hands. Right now Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team are better than everyone else. But they aren’t that much better.

Beating them can be done. And this series is full of fellows that can do it.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • It’s come out that Jeremy Mayfield hasn’t been paying his taxes, and this would be kind of a difficult story for NASCAR to plant. My question is, OK, the guy is surrounded by expensive lawyers working on a plan to defend his character from devastating accusations, and he isn’t ever told to make sure his taxes are paid? Proof once again that there are no great lawyers, just expensive ones.
  • If you don’t check Scene Daily and don’t subscribe to our newsletter, you may have missed the story about Brett Butler, driver of the No. 47 Chevy in the Truck Series. Butler ran the whole race at Nashville after a busted tire caused fiberglass to go into his helmet cooling system. And this happened on the first lap! Butler finished 32nd, 21 laps down, meaning he drove about 170 miles with fiberglass being blasted in his face. All for, at most, 12 points. That is my kind of competitor. Did he talk to his crew while breathing fiberglass? Get this guy in a Cup car.
  • Hamlin is reportedly doing just fine, and the doctor says he shouldn’t have any problem driving a racecar. This may have been why he selected Casey Mears to be his backup… Casey’s too nice a guy to pull a Tonya Harding.
  • Last year I wrote a column making the case for Scott Wimmer being worthy of a better shot than he’s had. This year Scott has two top 10s in two starts in the Nationwide Series driving the JR Motorsports No. 7. Why hasn’t he been offered the full-time job? Can’t figure that one.

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