Monday, October 19, 2009

Good For Johnson, But Good For The Sport?

Winning his third of five Chase races on Saturday night, Jimmie Johnson appears to be on his way to a record-breaking fourth-straight Sprint Cup Series title. Thanks to the misfortunes of some of his closest competitors, Johnson’s lead at the halfway mark in the Chase now sits at a comfortable ninety points. With a string of tracks coming up that fall right into the hands of Johnson, the question is will anyone be able to stop another title run for the No. 48 team and is it good for the sport?

The talk circulating the media Saturday night following Johnson’s dominant weekend was how another title run for the team would hurt NASCAR. With attendance slipping and television ratings not where NASCAR would like them, is the dominance of the No. 48 actually turning fans away from the sport?

In other sports we have seen dominant performances by the New York Yankees, The Chicago Bulls, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and the New England Patriots, and even in NASCAR, Johnson is not the first driver in the sport’s history to go on a tear. Yet, despite his amazing success over the last four years, Johnson seems to command little respect from the fans and some of those in the media.

The legendary Junior Johnson, named one of the first five inductees in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, told media members Friday he believed the No. 48 team had a strong chance at winning their record-breaking fourth-straight Cup Series championship. However, the feeling amongst many pundits and fans is the 48 team is simply stinking up the show and hurting NASCAR in the process.

“Man, I'm just out there doing my thing. People -- I don't think we've been stinking up the show for starters,” Johnson argued. “I mean, I guess I don't understand why people would have a problem with it. Everybody tunes in to watch Tiger win. Everybody tunes in to watch Federer do his thing on certain courts. I'm just doing my thing. I think there's a lot of fans out there that are excited to see what this 48 car is doing, and a lot of people are happy and rooting for us to win a fourth. The rest of them, oh, well.”

The argument against Johnson and his success is the dominant performances put on this team are turning fans away. Television ratings seem to support this argument; Nielson Media Research reported Saturday night’s NASCAR Banking 500 earned a 3.0 overnight rating, down 14.3 % from 2008. Unable to appreciate the historical significance of his accomplishments, it seems fans would rather see more parity in the competition and a fresh face in Victory Lane every once and a while and this may be leading them to change the channel.

Team owner Rick Hendrick understands the sentiment of the fans and skeptics, but explained after Johnson’s seventeenth Chase victory, his time will come.

“There's some great drivers that have been in our sport, for sure, but you look at his record since he entered this sport, and you've got to say that he'll go down as one of the greatest drivers that's ever been in the series,” Hendrick argued. “Sometimes you don't get that recognition until later on in your career, and I think that's just normal.”

As a fan when one of Hendrick Motorsports’ other drivers – Jeff Gordon – went on a tear from 1995-1998, I can understand the points being made. During that four year span, Gordon won three titles, was runner up the other year, compiled forty victories, eighty-six top-5s and ninety-eight top-10s in 126 races. Sitting in the stands as he dominated, sure it was frustrating, but looking back on that time it is more special to know every fan that was a part of the sport at that time was witnessing something special. The same should be said for those complaining about Johnson’s dominance today.

Putting all the debate out of their minds, this team is simply focused on getting the job done each week. The 33-year-old is humble in his success both this year and in years past. Not comfortable with the lead they currently have in the standings, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus understand that anything can happen over the next five races.

“I feel very good about racing for the championship,” Johnson explained. “If we don't have any problems, I feel that we've got a very good chance to win the championship, racing for it. But the unknowns is what we can't control. We don't want to get ourselves too emotionally wrapped up in this thing and have something come by and slap us in the face and take us out, so we're just trying to keep our guard up.”

With that determination and focus, this team will be a threat throughout the rest of the Chase – like it or not. That being said, there is still a lot of racing left to go and with tracks like Martinsville and Talladega in that mix anything can happen. This Chase is over by no means, so don’t tune out just yet. If Johnson is able to pull off another title it will be history in the making and twenty years down the road you can say, ‘I remember when…’ If someone is able to come back in this title hunt and wrangle the trophy from the hands of the 48 team it will make for an exciting and compelling end to a great season.

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