After his win at Martinsville Speedway, Jimmie Johnson will have the chance at a record-tying seventh title, but if he wins, will fans view seven Chase-era titles as equal to those of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty? Should they?
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: I don’t think fans will view Jimmie Johnson’s titles on the same level as Dale Earnhardt’s or Richard Petty’s, nor should they. The Chase has cheapened the title in that a driver doesn’t have to be great all year; he can be mediocre all year and great for 10 races (or now, a couple of them; Johnson can tank at both Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway and it doesn’t matter if he performs at Homestead-Miami Speedway). But fans need to put the format aside when it comes to Johnson as a driver, because he’s one of the best the sport has seen in any era. He races as hard as anyone, but not dirty, and he earns the respect of his peers. His win numbers don’t lie, either. Johnson deserves to be held in the same regard as Earnhardt and Petty as a driver, but the titles themselves do not.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: My guess is that winning seven titles in this modern era of the Chase means more than the seven earned by both Petty and Earnhardt. The competition is more evenly matched, there are fewer events on the schedule and the limitations of the Chase renders most teams moot come the fall race at Chicagoland Speedway. Toss in the elimination feature of the past two years and winning it all becomes even more complicated. If Johnson wins the title this year with the elimination process in use, it’ll be a huge accomplishment.
Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: A lot of longtime fans won’t necessarily see Johnson as the same type of champion as Earnhardt or Petty. They are heroes from the past two generations, and with the changes in the scoring and champion system, they will largely be thought of as champions of from different eras. Johnson has been with a top team during his entire career, and with all of his titles coming in some form of Chase system, there is the perception he didn’t have to do the season-long grind like Earnhardt and Petty to win his titles. Nonetheless, Johnson has 79 career wins now, and he should be viewed on the same level at Earnhardt and Petty. He is one of the most consistent drivers in his time, and for any other driver to win a title, they know have to account for Johnson.
Clayton Caldwell, Contributor: Old-school fans will never ever put Johnson in the same category as Earnhardt or Petty, no matter how many championships he wins. There are many reasons for that, but most important is geography. Earnhardt and Petty were born and raised in North Carolina, the heartbeat of American stock car racing, while Johnson hails from California. In this era where engineering has taken a much bigger role in NASCAR than back in the days of Earnhardt and Petty, Johnson will never get the credit he deserves. It didn’t matter what car he raced with (Gen 5, 6 or 7), Johnson won and continues to win, and he’s done it all with class and dignity and very rarely moved anyone’s bumper to do it. I can understand the folks who don’t hold the Chase championships with as much credibility as the previous eras, but think about this: prior to 1975, when NASCAR instituted a more traditional points format, Petty won five championships. In those five championships there were numerous different points formats NASCAR used, and many of them were extremely flawed. Does Petty not get credit for those? He does and he should. It’s the same deal with Johnson.
Kyle Busch was vocal about having to race his teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin in the closing laps at Martinsville, saying that being held up cost him a chance to race Johnson for the win. Was Busch right, and should teammates consider the good of a win for the team instead of individual finishes?
Howell: NASCAR needs to make it a matter of every driver for him/herself. Look at what team politics have done for open-wheel racing, especially Formula 1. Taking one for the team sounds natural when talking about keeping your mates in the mix, but when all’s said and done, races should be focused on the best car and driver scoring the best finish possible.
Wolfe: The Joe Gibbs Racing drivers were in a tough spot late in the race Sunday. They needed to hold their position, but with them running so many laps next to each other, they also had to be a little extra careful. I can understand why Kyle Busch was a little frustrated, but if he was that much better than his teammates, he would have been able to get by them just like Brad Keselowski did.
Caldwell: I actually appreciate Busch’s desire to win, so I hate harping on him for being frustrated at the end of a race, but this is a bit much. You can get ahead of your teammates by passing them or out-qualifying them. They’re ahead of you for a reason. A racecar driver’s job is to make difficult for you to get by them, especially in the closing stages of a race. I’m not really sure what Busch wanted his teammates to do, but moving over is a bad option. Can you imagine if the scenario was flipped and Busch was asked to move over for his teammate?
Henderson: Look, this is the Chase, and every point counts — had Austin Dillon collected one more point between Charlotte Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, nobody’d be talking about Denny Hamlin. Hamlin had the position in the closing laps and held it — he did nothing wrong. It’s one thing to ask a driver to let a teammate have a bonus point early in the race, but another thing entirely to expect him to lay over. Also, does anyone out there think Busch would have let Hamlin by had the roles been reversed? If so, I’ve got a lovely piece of swampland and a nice bridge to sell you.
Add David Ragan to a growing list of drivers with unknown futures in the Cup Series. If the drivers looking at a long, difficult winter, who’s most deserving of a ride, and would some be better off looking in another series?
Wolfe: While Michael McDowell‘s future is certainly up in the air, the improved finishes he has had lately in the Sprint Cup Series, along with winning in the XFINITY Series, has shown he deserves a full-time ride. Another driver who has impressed in XFINITY is Blake Koch, who is contending for the title — with a brand new team, no less.
Caldwell: The guy I feel for the most right now is Casey Mears. Mears had a long-term deal with Germain Racing, but rumors have him searching for a ride at the end of the 2016 season with Ty Dillon driving the No. 13. While it’s been a tough year for Mears, he’s helped build that team to what it is now and start-and-parked when not a lot of drivers would have done that. David Ragan is a guy you may see venture into another series. BK Racing is still going through some growing pains as an organization, and while there have been some nice moments for the team, it still seems a ways away from competing for a Chase spot anytime soon. Ragan probably wants to be in the most competitive ride possible, and with the new rule in the XFINITY Series, he may be a guy who might get a competitive ride because of that. Also, with HScott Motorsports rumored to be shutting down, I believe you’re going to see Michael Annett in the Truck Series for JR Motorsports and bring his sponsor Pilot/Flying J with him.
Henderson: You can’t pick just one guy; a lot of drivers who are proven commodities are looking this year. The sport is not healthy below the elite teams, and it’s a real problem; I don’t think NASCAR or most fans realize how vital it is to have healthy teams in the garage. I feel for Mears; we’ve talked about how happy he’s been at Germain Racing, and he’s brought that team a long, long way — he’s been a top-15 points driver in the past, too. I really hope his sponsors will go with him wherever he goes; let Dillon find his own. And Mears isn’t the only driver getting the short end of the Dillon deal; if he goes to the No. 95 as has been speculated, then McDowell gets the shaft. Richard Childress should offer Mears or McDowell the No. 3 XFINITY ride full time next year as compensation. As for the other part of the question, any driver who would turn down a contender in a lower series for a bottom-of-the-barrel Cup ride is being short-sighted. Winning gets you noticed, toiling in subpar equipment doesn’t.
Howell: Ragan has certainly paid his dues trying to get a solid Cup ride, but his struggles say something about the financial demands of the business. Maybe going the route of an Elliott Sadler is okay: taking an XFINITY ride and being a bigger fish in a small pond. For all of the love surrounding Alex Bowman, I see him being better suited for an XFINITY seat. Ryan Reed is ready to make the jump to Cup, but it all depends on how the hierarchy at Roush Fenway Racing settles out.
The XFINITY Series returns to action this weekend after a couple of weeks off. The gap in races aligns the Chase with other series, but is it fair to the drivers in the title hunt trying to build momentum, or is it an advantage that needs to be extended to the Cup Series?
Caldwell: It’s pretty much the same for everyone in the series. Are two consecutive weeks off in the XFINITY Series during its championship run is bad? Yes, but if everyone is playing by the same rules I don’t see the big deal. It hurts the series and only emphasizes more of why we need some fresh tracks in the XFINITY Series. However, with ISC and SMI running the show in NASCAR these days, that is very unlikely.
Henderson: The break is terribly timed and another consequence of a poorly-thought-out title system, but it’s the same for everyone: it can break momentum, but also gives teams an opportunity to really concentrate on building fast cars for the last few races. There should be a week off for the Cup teams before the Chase, after Richmond International Raceway — but barring that, between the second and third rounds. Giving teams the chance to improve their cars would only make the final races better for fans.
Howell: I’d love to see a break in the Cup schedule during the Chase. It’s been a long time since we saw a weekend off. The problem is that any momentum surrounding the Chase would fade. It’s important to keep things moving at a steady pace, but the gaps we see in NXS and NCWTS calendars might be appreciated on the Cup side of things.
Wolfe: The break in the XFINITY Series doesn’t really the effect the drivers or the teams that much. They have known the schedule all season and have been able to prepare appropriately. It is helpful now for XFINITY to align with the Cup Series just so it will be easier to keep track of where they are at in the series and to keep that Chase in the consciousness of racing community.