As the sun beamed down on Dover International Speedway, car owner Rick Hendrick was still taking it all in. Driver Jimmie Johnson had snatched a victory, his record 11th at the Monster Mile, right out of a dominant Kyle Larson’s hands and no one on his own team believed it.
Crew chief Chad Knaus found the ending improbable enough he kept Johnson superglued to the pace car’s bumper “just in case.” His jump to the front in NASCAR Overtime completed a miracle drive from worst to first even though it took six extra laps to do it. It was an ending which had Larson referring to that “golden horseshoe” Kevin Harvick claims Johnson has hidden somewhere.
So the question came, as it inevitably has so many times before. What is the balance between Johnson’s luck and skill?
“I don’t think you can be lucky 83 times and seven championships,” Hendrick said without hesitation. “I think you have to have some racing luck every now and then. You get one that maybe someone fumbled the ball.
“But if you look at his record, what he’s done and the races he’s won, you know, you’d have to say he’s one of the greatest that’s ever raced in the sport.”
Sunday was clearly one of the fumbles. Johnson had to be lucky to be in position to win, the beneficiary of a late caution flag that occurred in the middle of green-flag pit stops. He still needed another late yellow, one for David Ragan’s wreck, otherwise the No. 48 car would finish second to Larson.
On top of that, Larson spun his tires on the restart. It was a moment the youngster initially complained about on the radio but by the time the checkered flag had waved, cooler heads prevailed.
“We were both playing games a little bit,” Larson said. “He just took off better than I did. He’s a seven-time champion for a reason.”
“I did everything I could to beat him, laid back, went forward,” Johnson said. “I laid back early, went forward late. He jumped ‑‑ he’s the leader, he’s supposed to jump first. I just made sure I didn’t jump before him. But when it mattered, I was actually ahead of him by a couple inches. They can protest all they want. I got the trophy. I did everything I could to beat him, and I did it.”
The duo then edged past the NASCAR Overtime line mere seconds before Ty Dillon ended up in the wall. Just like that, the race was over and Johnson somehow found his way into Victory Lane.
“It’s not exactly how we wanted the day to play out,” admitted Knaus. “That’s not the way we want to have it happen by any stretch.”
It’s the type of racing luck that brings the Jimmie Haters out in force. On social media and elsewhere, NASCAR officials were decried for throwing the caution too late, creating the NASCAR Overtime rules and handing victory to the No. 48.
It’s also dead wrong.
Sure, Larson spun the tires but Johnson also maximized his opportunity. He was clearly in front past the NASCAR Overtime line and would have made it to the white flag in first. You can’t fault the No. 48 team for executing a pit strategy that worked perfectly. It gave them track position during a late caution and set them up for a potential win.
Champions make their own luck, right? It’s a formula Johnson has followed, time and again to the point he’s in rarified air. The 83rd career victory tied him with Cale Yarborough, a NASCAR Hall of Famer for sixth on the all-time list, who also happened to be a childhood favorite.
“I swear to you,” he told the media. “I only dreamed of winning a race. To have 83 and tie him is just mind-blowing.”
It’s also the next step up the ladder to NASCAR immortality. Two more wins and Johnson will blow by Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for fourth on the all-time list. 10 more and he’s passed former teammate Jeff Gordon for third. 23 more, a very reachable number considering his win rate the past few years and he’ll pass David Pearson and sit runner-up to The King.
It’s possible, by then Johnson will be the new King with a record-breaking eighth NASCAR championship. But yet here we are, talking about the right balance of luck and skill.
LeBron James is in his seventh straight NBA Finals. I watched his post-race press conference Sunday night. You think people are asking him about the difference between luck and skill?
No. People are wondering if he’s the greatest of our time.
You wonder if Johnson will ever get that same level of respect while driving. He could win 10 straight races, it seems, and the world will jump on a conspiracy theory. Every victory is scrutinized for a potential holding call NASCAR threw to keep the opposition at bay.
It’s Johnson’s world, created by the sport’s puppeteers, and everyone else has to run on seven cylinders. God forbid there’s any actual talent involved that produced 11 Monster Mile wins and over 3,000 laps led.
NASCAR produced a handout Sunday that showed a career comparison between Johnson and Yarborough. The seven-time champ got his 83 wins in four fewer starts; he also has more top-10 finishes than Cale, four more titles and a higher average finish (12.1 to 12.6). He’s done so in an era with a higher portion of the field capable of winning and a potpourri of postseason formats.
Yes, I know, comparing any era of NASCAR drivers has a level of apples to oranges involved. But it’s clear Johnson can hold his own against virtually any Hall of Famer you throw up against him. Pearson, Allison, Waltrip… Johnson’s right on pace.
So why are we treating every win as if it’s been stolen by a second-class citizen? Some say it’ll take retirement for Johnson to be fully appreciated. That he’s too intertwined with vanilla personalities, Hendrick dominance and other factors which contributed to the sport’s decline these last 10 years.
But it really shouldn’t be that way. Perhaps one day, people will start appreciating the man instead of nitpicking his every move.