5 NASCAR Cup championships. It’s something only three men have accomplished.
5 NASCAR Cup championships in a row. That is something only one man has accomplished.
The argument has been made that Jimmie Johnson, now the 5-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, is the best driver ever to be seen in NASCAR. Even better than Dale Earnhardt, or The King himself, Richard Petty.
It’s a valid argument. After all, this level of dominance has never been matched, and may never be. But there is a reason why Johnson and the #48 team’s “greatness” is not, and may never be even partially, appreciated by many.
NASCAR today is much different than it used to be. Today, the NASCAR schedule practically consists of 10 races; the other 26 don’t really count for anything other than positioning yourself to get into the top 12 in points in an effort to make a run at the title.
Those last 10 hold all the weight.
It’s a system that allows teams like Johnson’s to experiment in the first 26 races so that, come Chase time, they’ve learned enough to be dominant in the last 10. It is something Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, have taken huge advantage of. And it’s something that, under the old system, teams like Johnson’s never would have had the wiggle room to do.
Under the old system, all 36 races held the same amount of weight. If a driver like Johnson struggled in an early race, such as say, Daytona, it would actually hurt him in his run for the championship. Under this system, a system some argue might as well have been built around Johnson, one or multiple bad results in the first 26 races doesn’t hurt him. All that counts are the last 10.
While the argument that today’s NASCAR is built around Johnson may seem bizarre if not completely ridiculous, it’s an argument that does hold some water.
When you look at the history of the Chase system, you’ll notice that it was implemented a year after Matt Kenseth, a Roush-Fenway driver, ran away with the title, defeating second-place Johnson by 90 points only after Kenseth finished dead-last in the finale at Homestead. Since 2004, the system has never been tweaked except to allow more drivers race for the title.
Had the Chase system been implamented in 2003, Johnson would have been the champion.
Other changes that have been made to seemingly accommodate Johnson are the current car, and the schedule.
The current car, introduced to the sport in 2006(before Johnson won his first title) and which made its debut in 2007, was brought in to “make the competition better”. Since it was introduced, Johnson has won the Cup title every year and has a proverbial stranglehold on the sport.
As for the competition, I certainly wouldn’t call it “better”.
The schedule has changed a little, but has helped Johnson in every conceivable way. The most notable changes include the elimination of Rockingham, where Johnson was winless in 5 starts, the addition of races in Phoenix and at Auto Club, where Johnson has a combined 10 wins, and the addition of Auto Club to the Chase.
So it’s no secret that, when you look over the changes made to the sport since 2003, every single one of them has benefited one man, and he’s won the last 5 championships.
It also doesn’t help that, through this era of complete dominance by one man, the Vice President of the sport has been quoted saying that the competition is the “best I’ve ever seen it.”
Jimmie Johnson has won the last 5 championships; a feat that nobody has ever come close to accomplishing, and one that perhaps nobody will. But when such a strong argument can be made that an entire sport; the points system, the car, and the schedule, has been molded to fit one competitor so perfectly, it’s hard to even tolerate, much less appreciate, that kind of “greatness”.
Even if it is genuine.