When I think of Jimmie Johnson and Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup championship performance, I’m reminded of a simple analogy Rick Hendrick brought up after the race.
“I like to use the Parcells quote,” the winning car owner said. “You are what your record says you are.”
So many critics have assailed Johnson through the years as the lynchpin to the sport’s dying popularity. He’s too politically correct. He drives the best equipment. Crew chief Chad Knaus, not the driver, is the reason for dynasty-like success. The men he’s chasing – Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, with seven titles apiece – would wipe the floor with Johnson in equal race cars. It’s as if some schmuck off the street could get selected, man the No. 48 and be sitting in the same spot. Donovan McNabb’s off-the-cuff remarks echoed Friday about race drivers not being athletes only feeds into that line of thinking.
It’s all categorically unfair to Johnson, on-track, to being the most decorated Cup champion in history. On paper, he already has six titles at age 38. His 66 victories place him eighth all-time; that includes each of the sport’s four crown jewels (Charlotte, Darlington, Daytona, Indianapolis) more than once. No one ever, outside of Petty or maybe David Pearson, has been so accomplished in this sport under age 40.
Unlike the Petty, Pearson and Earnhardt, Johnson does it while putting in an A-plus fitness regimen. A runner, Johnson wants to tackle the Boston Marathon next year. He’s also succeeded with a rotating pit crew, overcoming growing pains as many longtime members of the program have moved onward in recent years. He’s a new breed that’s made the most of his “upper class” circumstances at Hendrick Motorsports; even the New York Yankees, with the highest payroll in Major League baseball, still have to win those games. So why is Johnson chastised for doing his job better than anyone else?
“He doesn't wave the flag a lot,” added Hendrick. “He does so many things for charity, “Make a Wish.” They raise money, build houses, do things. He doesn't try to do things to gain attention or say, ‘Look at me.’ He's more about letting his actions speak for himself.”
That’s a far cry from what this sport was built on, with men like Earnhardt, whose actions were designed to rile the fan base (and attract new ones). But that shouldn’t take away from all Johnson has accomplished … and all he will accomplish. Being a marketer’s nightmare or generating bad ratings doesn’t leave you outside the Hall of Fame.
It’s time to respect Mr. Johnson, regardless of what you think of him personally for the way in which he’s reset the record book. We’re watching one of the greatest drivers of all time at his best. There should be more excitement surrounding that and records he’ll set that will take decades to break.
A final “Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: Championship drama? Yawn.
As expected, Johnson and Co. remained in position to take the title from the start of the Ford EcoBoost 400 in Homestead, Fla. Besides some overplayed contact with Matt Kenseth on a restart with 74 laps to go, the race was run as smooth as could be. That’s what happens when you need just a 23rd-place run, right? Kenseth, for his part, led the most laps and posted a runner-up finish but knew, in the end, his effort would be in vain.
“I told them that I didn’t really care,” he said in terms of Johnson’s running position. “Didn’t really need to know unless he was in the garage and something happened to him and then we were just going to make sure we didn’t run into the wall. Other than that, we were just going to run the race, call the race and try to win.”
Kevin Harvick, who ran 10th, settled for a distant third in points although just being in position to grab the title mathematically was good enough for him. Johnson sealed this deal in Phoenix, and everybody knew it; Sunday was like a coronation.
SECOND GEAR: Denny gets it together just in time To say 2013 was a nightmare for Denny Hamlin would be putting it lightly. An early tete-a-tete with Joey Logano led to a hard Fontana crash and a back injury that still lingers. Out a month, he returned behind the curve, still in obvious pain and struggled to adapt to NASCAR’s new Gen-6 chassis. For much of the summer, internal strife was the rumor and crew chief Darian Grubb was on the “hot seat” to return in 2014.
But come Chase time, this team silently put it together with four top-10 finishes in the final six races of the season. That included Sunday’s win, where Hamlin capitalized during a track position shuffle that left teammate Kenseth mired in traffic. Touting new therapy techniques, which have helped his back immensely, the run kept alive a streak of eight straight seasons where the veteran has reached Cup Victory Lane.
“It just gives us huge momentum,” said Hamlin of the team’s surprising performance. “We started kicking things into gear about two months ago and then, to come here to Miami and back it up with a win — this is something we can think about for the entire winter.”
Hamlin still has a long way to go in order to be considered a 2014 title contender. Offseason surgery is still very much a possibility. But this victory, done in front of some major FedEx executives, did a lot to ease long-term concerns at the No. 11.
THIRD GEAR: Solid endings from drivers to watchFor Dale Earnhardt Jr., a title or a win was not in the cards this year. But a strong run at Homestead, where he collected yet another top-5 result, gives hope for better days in 2014.
“Ever since I started working with (crew chief) Steve (Letarte) and that whole team I hadn't wanted the years to end,” he said after running third. “We seem to get better as the season goes. You would just love to go to another race next week.”
Ending the year fifth in points, his best since suiting up with Hendrick, you’ve got to think the No. 88 is on track for a breakthrough trip to Victory Lane in 2014. Further back, reigning champ Brad Keselowski ran a strong sixth and has the right attitude after righting a disastrous year in the Chase.
“A champion is forever,” he said after falling to 14th, the best of the non-Chasers in 2013. “It might not be reigning, but you’re still a champion forever. I’m proud of that. I’m looking forward to the opportunities in the future to become a two-time champion. It didn’t happen this year, but there’s a long road in front of us.”
Kudos, too, to Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who was 22nd at Homestead but earned Rookie of the Year honors over girlfriend Danica Patrick. Significant improvement late in the season leaves him as a guy to watch in 2014.
FOURTH GEAR: The end of an era
Dave Blaney. Jeff Burton. Mark Martin. Ken Schrader. Between them, they have over 60 victories and 2,500 starts on the Cup level. Add in Bobby Labonte, who finished up his 2013 season at Phoenix and those numbers creep far higher.
What do all of them have in common? Come 2014, they’ll be retired — or running the series on just a part-time basis. For a man like Martin, at age 54, the move had been expected since February. I knew the second he asked for his own copy of the results after running third in this year’s Daytona 500. After several aborted “retirement tours,” it was time.
Same for Labonte, Blaney and Schrader. Burton? You wonder whether, at age 46, he has another year or two left in him. A likely part-time ride at Michael Waltrip Racing allows us to find out, but it’s also a sign of how fragile these top-tier rides are these days. Jeff Gordon is sitting here at age 42. Tony Stewart is the same, coming off a major leg injury. How many more years before they’re pushed to the side … or come to their own realization that it’s time to step aside.
Right now, that sounds totally ridiculous. But reality could be sooner than you think. Hendrick reportedly met with NAPA this week to try and ink a deal with Chase Elliott, Gordon’s likely replacement. He’s only two years away from being Cup ready. And how about guys like Greg Biffle? At 45, he enters into the last year of his contract with Roush Fenway Racing and 3M in 2014. Think he’s got an automatic extension? Look what happened to good buddy Kenseth …
No matter what, best wishes to these men who helped define NASCAR’s peak era in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Thy all will be greatly missed.
OVERDRIVEJust what was Paul Menard doing bringing a car on fire into the pits? The YouTube-like explosion that followed, after his right rear Goodyear overheated and exploded, could have left several people seriously hurt. … Kyle Larson ran a quiet 15th for Phoenix Racing, his best run to date on the Cup level. Look for bigger and better from the rookie come 2014. … Homestead put on phenomenal Truck and Nationwide Series shows this weekend. So why was Sprint Cup so tame? It’s another indictment against the Gen-6 chassis, which seems headed for major revisions in the offseason.