In case you haven’t heard, Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s team won the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship on the strength of a second-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Sunday’s Ford 400 – his fifth straight. And while the ESPN crew and pillars of the media that cover NASCAR release stories lacing him with words like, “incredible,” “historic,” “unbelievable” and “all-time great,” NASCAR’s ever-growing pool of dissatisfied fans just grew another notch disinterested. Is one side right? Are both points of view spiraling away from each other? With sponsors fleeing the sport, ratings bottoming out and NASCAR spinning every positive event into a string of platitudes that makes stomaching them hard for even the greatest of optimists, one can’t help but have a few reservations about Johnson now winning a half-decade’s worth of championships under the Chase format.
But is this feeling the right one to have?
Drivers like Petty, Earnhardt, Yarborough, Waltrip and Gordon all rang up astronomical numbers and championship hardware. However, Johnson’s efforts seem cheapened by the points reset that takes place after race 26 every year. That could be overlooked if Johnson were more relatable. Unlike Petty (The King of giving back to the fans), Yarborough and Earnhardt (who each personified blue collar, rags-to-riches rises to fame), NASCAR nation has had trouble grasping Johnson’s vanilla, corporate image. Despite the fact that Johnson grew up poor, didn’t buy his ride with Hendrick and lost four championships before winning one, his domination has not jived well with many in both the media center and the grandstands. NASCAR’s numbers began to fall in 2006, the same year Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus began their string of success. Chisel Rick Hendrick’s face in with this duo, and you have the Mount Rushmore of the problem that NASCAR has become, the dynasty of driving interest in stock car racing… elsewhere.
Then again, Johnson’s drive for five is historic. No NFL team has won five Super Bowls and only select teams have only been able to match the feat in the MLB, NHL and NBA. In racing, only Formula 1’s Michael Schumacher (five championships from 2000-2004) and NHRA’s John Force (10 championships between 1993 and 2002) have accomplished five in a row. Johnson is the only driver in NASCAR history to come close to five crowns, and is only two short of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt (seven each) to tie for the all-time lead in Cup championships. Shouldn’t we respect this achievement? Johnson could crash through the ceiling of most all-time records in the series. If he quit tomorrow to start modeling in beard galleries and fixing stop signs with Kobalt tools, he likely would go down statistically as one of the sport’s 10 best… at least. But instead, we yawn and flip the TV to see how many interceptions Favre has thrown or if his wife swapped his iPhone for a 2002 Nokia without a camera. We just can’t grasp history when we see it.
Who’s to blame? Is NASCAR’s fan base taking out its frustration with Brian France and his leadership group’s poor decisionmaking in the last seven years on Johnson?
The answer, to me, is a little bit yes and a little bit no. Fans reacted poorly to some of Earnhardt’s domination in the late ’80s and early ‘90s and also to Jeff Gordon’s surge from 1995-2001. So naturally, Johnson raking in five rings and doing it with ease in the previous four years is going to rub more than a few skeptics the wrong way. But combine the most dominant run in Sprint Cup history with rampant disapproval of the Chase, along with many other mitigating negative characteristics of the sport, and this perfect storm morphs into a hurricane that washes the allure and excitement off of Johnson and the No. 48 team’s accomplishments.
Like it or not, agree or disagree – that’s a shame.
Almost everyone outside of the Johnson camp, whether they admit it or not, has a bad taste in their mouth today. Despite one of the most exciting stretches of races in awhile, Johnson’s should-be inspiring fifth straight Sprint Cup crown actually mars what was an exciting 2010. After a season full of comeback stories (see: Richard Childress Racing, Jamie McMurray), verbal comebacks after races (see: “She wears the firesuit in the family,” Joey Logano; “He’s starting to piss me off,” Gordon; Kyle Busch’s tirade against Denny Hamlin after wrecking in the All-Star race), and an airtight points race through most of the Chase, the 2010 season’s lasting memory will end up being just another Cup falling into Johnson’s hands.
20 years hence, when Johnson likely has retired and some other hot shoe is at the apex of their career, another points format is being criticized for the same problems the Chase has, and no one else has won five straight championships, we likely will sit back with our kids and grandkids and reminisce about the greatness of Johnson and his team. Little will be said about how much it rubbed us the wrong way after, say, 2007. Don’t we do that about Earnhardt and the No. 3 team now? Don’t we already do that about the Jeff Gordon-Ray Evernham dynamic duo that led the Rainbow Warriors to four championships in seven years? Unfortunately, those good feelings are going to come long after whatever solution is born that will resurrect this sport from the doldrums in which it sits – because they are not around to save NASCAR now.
Johnson, Knaus and Hendrick deserve major props for what they have accomplished. Nonetheless, here’s to whoever rises to the occasion next season and gives the No. 48 team a run for its money.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m. (or whenever the Georgia Bulldogs are not playing) and daily as a traffic reporter on AM-750 and NOW 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com and is co-track announcer at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga.