On Sunday afternoon, before the race began, I decided to have a little fun. You see, there’s this Jimmie Johnson fan I know who as of late had become increasingly frustrated that the No. 48 hasn’t eviscerated the field in this year’s iteration of the Chase – just as he has the last four years. So, I figured I’d tweak away, and the responses from the fan (who shall remain both nameless and genderless for the purposes of this column – to protect the not so innocent, if you will) are below.
My opening gambit was a gimme: “Looking forward to the race this afternoon? Should be exciting?”
The response: “I don’t care who wins, Harvick or Johnson, doesn’t matter – as long as it’s not Hamlin.”
I tried again, gently. “Come on,” I said, “NASCAR needs a great finale. Surely you don’t mean that!”
I got the same truculent response. “I hate Hamlin.”
I figured, then, I’d try one more time. “Seriously, now, though you love Jimmie, you know you want him to win.”
“No,” came the response, “I just hate Hamlin.”
Now to me this reaction was extremely interesting, and it spoke volumes about the kind of fan this particular double J addict is. In short, this fan was more interested in seeing another driver, who they “hated” fail – for whatever combination of reasons, real or imagined – than they were in seeing their own favorite driver win a fifth straight title: something that is unlikely ever to be repeated. (Now that I’ve said that, watch Joey Logano do it in a few years’ time.)
Back to my point about my bitter Johnson fan, and really, it’s a bigger picture point about the sport. NASCAR inflames massive passions in people, both good and bad. Try as I did, though, I couldn’t get the fan to admit they were nervous as a kitten on a hot tin roof – especially after the previous week and the unprecedented mid-race pit crew swap. I couldn’t get any sort of rational response. So in the end, I played nice and gave up. There is, sometimes, no point in trying to calmly discuss the status quo with folks who have their hate-o-meter cranked beyond the max. But it did get me thinking – sensibly – about who would be the best champion for NASCAR this year?
The obvious answer is, perhaps, in the title of this column: Anyone But Jimmie. Let’s face it; despite a rap for being too devoid of flavor ice-cream-wise (I’ve always liked vanilla), Johnson is very much a worthy champion. He has the crew chief equivalent of Dr. Evil atop the pit box, NASCAR’s most successful ever owner and a team back in the shop most of the rest of the Sprint Cup garage would walk over hot coals to acquire. He serves his sponsors with consummate perfection – never failing to thank all those who make it possible – and when, to use Brad Daugherty’s favorite expression, the pay window opens, Johnson is always at the head of the line with nary a hair out of place. A fifth straight championship for Johnson would then reflect the sheer stranglehold the No. 48 team has had on the rest of a searingly competitive field. And despite the numerous fans who would be disappointed, it would be something no true NASCAR fan could begrudge. Johnson is just that good, he really is. If he won it again, he’d deserve it, no doubt.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the grizzled veteran Kevin Harvick seeking a first career championship. His performance in the pre-Phoenix press conference was a master class in psychological tweaking, opining on the foolishness of Mike Ford’s ebullient post-Texas words with regard to the strength of the No. 11 team. But then, that’s Harvick, who doesn’t care who he has to annoy. It’s a refreshing, old-school approach from a driver who did arguably the hardest thing ever seen in the sport: Taking over the iconic No. 3 machine (albeit with a new number) after the untimely passing of the late, great seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt. After being out to lunch for much of 2009, RCR and Harvick regrouped and the 10-year veteran of some 357 races has been the very model of consistency this year. Imagine, too, if there was a 50-point bonus for the regular season champion, which in my opinion there really should be. Harvick would be four points up on Hamlin, which would make it even more exciting for next weekend.
At this point, I want to address the issue of the old vs. new points system because this was another round of ammo fired at me by the jaded Johnson junkie.
“Hamlin should be eliminated already,” I was told.
Yes, true, mathematically speaking, but here’s the funny thing: Drivers and teams run according to the title deciding system in place. Chad is on the record as saying he experiments with setups once a Chase place is all but locked up, ergo they don’t run in the same way, so it’s a pointless argument. Even with that in mind, would Harvick be a good 2010 champion? Heck yeah. And it would be quite the story, rich in NASCAR history.
Then you have the young upstart Denny Hamlin, who will turn the big 3-0 this week. Not even the most blinkered Denny fan could deny he’s made a ton of mistakes in the past few years; but, by the same dint, not even the biggest hater could deny he’s authored a phenomenal eight-win season – the very best of his career to date. He’s overcome numerous obstacles, not the least of which an extremely tough knee surgery, and he’s shown a hitherto unseen level of maturity in his approach all season long. If he doesn’t win it all in Miami, he can be proud at his consistency and his newfound ability to close out races – Phoenix last Sunday notwithstanding. He’s also addressed some of the issues that plagued him in previous years: Winning on tracks not named Martinsville and Pocono; rolling into victory lane with a car that isn’t, on the surface, a race-winning ride; not panicking when the chips are down; resisting the urge to publicly castigate his pit crew (who’ve been flawless most of the year) and, maybe most importantly of all, calming down on Twitter. I’m kidding with that last point, but you get my drift. Like Johnson and Harvick, Hamlin would be a worthy 2010 champion.
So, with one 400-mile race to go, we have three legitimate candidates to win it all. And this type of ending is perfect for whether you run the old or the new points system – the Chase or otherwise. After all, isn’t this what NASCAR fans want: A winner takes all race after 10 months and many thousands of miles run the length and breadth of the U.S. I, for one, can’t wait to see how it all plays out this weekend. You can’t help but feel, based on what we’ve seen all year, there will be more than enough drama to go ’round. Now, I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t have a preference as to who hoists the big old sterling silver Sprint Cup this weekend – I do. No question. But you know what? If it’s not my driver, I won’t be too disappointed. Well, I’ll be distraught for an hour or so, but I’ll get over it because the simple truth is you have three drivers, all of whom deserve to win a championship this year. Of course, the difference between “deserve” and “actually winning” are two completely opposite things. And yet when the checkers flies in Miami, the cat on top of the point standings will be the driver that should be the champion: It’s too damn competitive and too damn hard to win one. Who will it be? Well, you’ll have to tune in to find out.