Each day from mid-February through late November, a small band of motorsports journalists work nearly around the clock — this being the digital age — to keep rabid NASCAR fans as up-to-the-second informed as possible. Many of these media members are ensconced in the sport’s “traveling circus,” working in garage areas, media centers and pressboxes nearly 40 weeks a year. So who better to go to for a “state of the sport” talk than them?
While drivers may toe the company line — keeping sponsors happy and staying in the sanctioning body’s good graces are important to their livelihood — it’s the job of these journos to provide news, insight and opinion in a sport that has no shortage of any.
In this nine-part feature, Athlon Sports sits down with seven media professionals from different outlets to get a healthy cross-section of ideas, opinions and feedback on the biggest issues alive and well in the sport of NASCAR, circa 2014.
Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team has won six of the last eight Sprint Cup championships. In a day when parity in professional sports is not merely encouraged but is the norm, is this team’s sustained success comparable to anything ever seen in NASCAR?
Pete Pistone (Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio and MRN Radio; @PPistone): I was a kid through Petty’s reign and covered some of Earnhardt’s as a reporter, but what Johnson is doing to rewrite the record book is simply spectacular. Fans of other drivers might not like it, but Johnson has already established himself as the greatest driver in NASCAR history.
Nick Bromberg (Yahoo! Sports; @NickBromberg): No. This is the greatest streak of domination in NASCAR history. While NASCAR is closer than it’s ever been, you could make the argument that close doesn’t always equal competitive. In an NFL where a 2–14 team quintuples its win total the following year, the same turnarounds don’t and can’t happen in NASCAR’s climate.
But that’s not taking anything away from what the No. 48 team has done. That closeness leaves less margin for error. For example, a bobble on pit road under green can create a deficit that’s impossible to make up. And in the Chase format, that can be fatal. But through the 10 Chase seasons, six of these titles have been won by this bunch. That’s simply incredible.
Nate Ryan (USA Today; @nateryan): It’s best compared to an NBA dynasty. The Chicago Bulls also won six championships in eight seasons, and its common thread is a dynamic troika. Just as the Bulls’ core of Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen remained mostly constant (aside from MJ’s sabbatical) through roster churn and varied opponents, the No. 48 trio of Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec also has been in place for all six championships. Malec somehow hasn’t left despite plentiful offers for greener pastures via a crew chief promotion, and that might be one of the most underreported stories in Sprint Cup.
Bob Pockrass (The Sporting News; @bobpockrass): No. Jimmie Johnson is a great driver. Chad Knaus is a great crew chief. They have a great team and organization behind them. For those who hate the fact he has won six titles in the last eight years, there is one good thing — the chances of another driver achieving such a feat is extremely slim.
Mike Mulhern (MikeMulhern.net; @mikemulhern): Jimmie Johnson may be a great driver, one of the best ever, but such a run is not good for the sport. Sustained success in NASCAR history? Check out Richard Petty, the Wood brothers and Junior Johnson. In my opinion it is long past time for Brian France to do the rest of the job he started a few years ago — limiting the number of Cup teams any one man can run. Break up the mega-teams; limit owners to no more than two Cup teams; and drastically modify these “engineering” operations.
Mike Hembree (Athlon Sports; @mikehembree): The only real comparison is the extended success of the old Petty Enterprises team, which was obnoxiously dominant in its day. But the No. 48’s run is more impressive, given the ability of more teams to be competitive in the modern era.
Ryan McGee (ESPN.com/ESPN The Magazine; @ESPNMcGee): No. Teams like Holman-Moody, Petty Enterprises, Junior Johnson & Associates, or even Richard Childress Racing did their greatest damage in eras when only the top handful of cars could realistically win races. Now we’re seeing double-digit winners each year and rules designed to keep as many cars as possible on the lead lap. They’ve changed the cars, the championship format, everything … and Hendrick keeps on winning. Yes, they have a big budget. But so do the other superteams. The difference is the right people in the right places and a willingness to take risks when it comes to new processes. Oh, and that Johnson guy is pretty good.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro