By admin | November 18, 2009
By Richard Allen
Only two men, Cale Yarborough and Jimmie Johnson, have ever won three consecutive NASCAR championships. Odds are that after this Sunday’s last race of 2009 there will be only one man to have ever won four consecutive titles.
Johnson made the championship battle interesting when he crashed early in the race at the Texas Motor Speedway and allowed his closest competitors to narrow the rather large gap he had built up. However, the dominating performance of the #48 team in Phoenix this past weekend opened Johnson’s lead back up to a healthy 108 points over second place Mark Martin.
In other words, Johnson would have to suffer a catastrophe similar to the one in Texas to stand any chance of losing his lead. While that is possible, it is not likely.
If Johnson finishes 25th or higher in Sunday’s race the Sprint Cup trophy is his no matter what happens. Any finish of 26th or lower would have the championship determined by where Martin finishes. Martin must finish in the top-10 to have any chance at all of taking his first championship. Obviously, winning and leading the most laps would give him the best chance at scoring a big come from behind win.
Given that Johnson’s title is a virtual certainty, the bigger question is not whether he will win, but instead, where does his win rank in NASCAR history?
Many who have followed the sport of NASCAR racing will discount Johnson’s accomplishment due to the fact that each of his titles has been won under the Chase for the Championship playoff format.
In 2004 NASCAR debuted a new system for selecting its season long champion. Rather than have points accumulate over the course of an entire season and declaring the driver with the most points the champion, a ten race playoff was instituted. Under the new format, the top-10(now 12) drivers after the 26th race of the season were set apart from everyone else and essentially put on even ground to race it out over the last ten events to decide the winner.
The thought was that the new system would increase interest at the very time NASCAR would be up against playoff baseball and regular season NFL games for television ratings. Some fans have accepted the new system but many hold the new way in utter disgust because they do not regard the system as a legitimate way of choosing a season long champion.
Those who like the Chase would argue that Johnson’s accomplishment should rank highly in NASCAR history because he has had to beat more contenders over the last ten races than any other champion in history.
Those who dislike the Chase would argue that the NASCAR season is meant to be a grind, not a quick burst. So, the championship format should reward the driver and team who are able to remain the most consistent over the long haul.
In at least a couple of instances, the Chase format has allowed Johnson to make up large deficits that he probably would not have made up otherwise. However, had the old system been in place, he may not have been so far behind to begin with as strategies might have played out differently.
Ultimately, the conclusion that has to be drawn is that like it or not, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have figured how to play this game better than everyone else, including their Hendrick Motorsports teammates. Whether using the Chase or not, the feat of winning four consecutive championships is remarkable. Johnson, Knaus and the rest of this team will hold a unique place in NASCAR if in fact they go on to win that title.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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