Last season I wrote a series of articles detailing who I thought were the best drivers in Sprint Cup today and why. I was probably utterly off the mark, but I based the rankings on several different criteria that are likely accurate, such as versatility on different types of tracks. In the articles, I ranked our current champion third, behind Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon. I may have to re-think that.
I also wrote a column earlier this year suggesting that the No. 48 team is not unbeatable, and while I stand by that, I did note that Jimmie Johnson’s biggest challenger has been a different driver each year, and only the No. 48 team has been consistently at or near the top of the standings for the last four seasons. Actually, make that eight seasons, since Johnson has been in title contention every year since his rookie season of 2002.
There isn’t any question that the No. 48 car was the best in the field last Sunday. He ran up front for most of the race, the safest place to be on a road course. And seeing the No. 48 car be so strong race in and race out is what makes people question whether Johnson really is that good. Chad Knaus is the best head wrench in the sport, maybe ever, so one gets the impression that any mildly qualified primate could take the No. 48 car to victory lane.
But the car ended up there on Sunday because of the guy behind the wheel.
Many times a decent but not winning car will have a strong finish solely because of attrition. As we saw in the Indy 500, it can even enable Danica Patrick to get a decent finish sometimes. Nowhere is this more prevalent than at a road course, where drivers used to putting the pedal to the floor and turning left suddenly have to learn the twists and hills and esses and shifting on a track with right turns. The Sonoma race was clearly full of drivers who lacked these skills, spinning out, shoving each other off the track and attempting to pass in the wrong place.
Jimmie wins championships not because of what he did at Infineon, but because of what he didn’t do. He didn’t speed on pit road. He didn’t wheel-hop or fly off the track, causing him to lose 30 positions. He didn’t run over other cars and spin them out, making enemies that would likely pay him back in a future event. (I’m a big fan of Gordon and even I thought someone should have kicked his ass last Sunday.) He didn’t abuse his car. He didn’t stall trying to save fuel.
While everyone else on the track was turning the race into a three-ring circus full of incidents resulting from angry or unskilled drivers, Johnson stayed smooth and steady, not doing anything that would put him back in that pack.
Most of all — and this is important, folks — he conferred with his crew chief late in the race and decided, while running second with a car that possibly could have closed the deal, that they were going to be happy with second place and take the points. Even today, you need to do that to win a title. And lo and behold, the guy in front of him made a colossal blunder and handed the No. 48 team a win. All kinds of speculation has been given on what Marcos Ambrose was thinking, but I have yet to see anyone mention the psychological effect of seeing the blue No. 48 in the rear view.
Even small mistakes absolutely kill you in this sport. Checkers or wreckers does not win titles. Jimmie has learned that. He seems to know, especially towards the end of a race, exactly what his car can and can’t do. One of the most difficult facets of racing for a driver to master is staying within the limits of the racecar. Put a driver who can do it in good equipment and he’ll put you in contention for a title.
Johnson races nearly flawlessly and smart. When the situation requires it, he will go for the win, set up his opponent and pass him clean. When it isn’t an emergency, he gets what he can and leaves the racetrack with no one promising revenge on him to the press.
Johnson exploded the myth that one has to be Dale Earnhardt to win championships, pushing and shoving and daring other drivers to wreck. That may have worked for the Intimidator, who very often won races on sheer guile. But Mark Martin, who is well known as one of the cleanest racers in the sport, is not a large amount of bad luck away from being a five-time title holder himself. Matt Kenseth, Dale Jarrett and the Labonte brothers were all champions too, and none of them were known for dastardly aggression.
Earnhardt may have thrived on it, but being overly reckless can bite a driver. It isn’t just that another driver will exact payback and hand his aggressor a costly DNF in a future race. Race other drivers like Kyle Busch does and that is exactly how they will race you… and that can result in a cut tire, an aero-destroying dent or a serious loss of focus to road rage. Kyle is a blast to watch and more daring than Jimmie is, but Jimmie’s the one with the Cups.
For four years maybe that has turned a number of people off. Other than beating your driver, Johnson doesn’t give you a reason to hate him. There isn’t a band of fans who tune in just to cheer if he wrecks. Not that they don’t, but it’s just not the same as when Gordon was the superstar driver. Gordon showed Sunday that he can be just as rough as Earnhardt was, and no fan takes kindly to their driver being pushed around.
I was once in the camp of folks that, while not blaming Jimmie, has suggested that his dominance and demeanor were hurting the sport. But I’m growing to appreciate how great the No. 48 team really is, including a long overdue admiration for the driver’s skills. Winning on a road course and winning at Bristol earlier this year should remove any doubt about Johnson’s ability to wheel a racecar. There are plenty of guys that can’t pull that off no matter how strong their machine.
Yes, he gets great cars. Most all champions do. But when you can take them to victory lane anywhere, and when you almost never bring the car home at a lesser position than it is capable, and when you can finish in the top 10 with a car that clearly isn’t a winner, you’ve gotta get your props. Jimmie Johnson showed last Sunday that he is every bit of a champion driver.
- The last time Bruton Smith dropped bombs about going somewhere where he is appreciated, the city of Concord had hotel maids appear in videos to tell him just how beloved he is in Cabarrus County. To prove it, he was given $80 million to build a dragstrip that initially was going to be stopped by the local government. That’s the benefit of being a jillionaire I guess. Why not try it again?
- I give Randy Lajoie all the credit in the world for manning up and taking responsibility for one lousy reefer, but what on earth was he thinking? Anyone who’s ever smelled marijuana smoke knows that it takes more than three days to exit your system for a test. And they’ve probably heard of Golden Seal too.
- Two problems got solved with Bobby Labonte driving the No. 7 this weekend… Labonte got a car to drive and Robby Gordon found someone that can run the entire race for him. My question is, why is the 2000 champion having such trouble finding a decent ride? He would do better than a lot of guys that are in their current cars.
- After Jeff Gordon’s rampage last week, I wouldn’t go betting on him this week at Loudon. No one is going to have a bigger target on his back this Sunday.