The Search For Jimmie’s Place In History Begins
By Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent
Phoenix, Ariz. – Jimmie Johnson stumbled down memory lane a week ago at Texas Motor Speedway, losing a sizeable chunk of a NASCAR Sprint Cup points lead for the second straight year.
A year ago, Johnson lost 77 points from a 183-point lead after finishing 15th at Texas.
On his return trip Sunday, Johnson again sputtered, crashing on Lap 3 and eventually motored home to a dismal 38th-place finish, losing 111 points of a 184-point lead over ageless Mark Martin.
The good news is Johnson remains in the driver’s seat for the Chase title, which if he collars would add to an already lusty resume an unprecedented fourth straight championship.
Should Johnson maintain the lead in the season’s final two races beginning with Sunday’s Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, just how big an accomplishment will it be in the eyes of some observers on the outside looking in?
“You want to be the best of the best on the Cup tour and ultimately that’s what Jimmie’s been able to hit on,” Kyle Busch said. “I always bring up his name probably in about every interview, but you have to idolize the guy.
“Who can win four straight titles in this type of era? Not even Jeff Gordon could do it. It’s a big deal. Those guys have really got it together and one of these days, whoever beats them, can’t imagine if they go five straight.”
First, Johnson has to make it four straight.
At the moment, Johnson is tied with Cale Yarborough with three straight titles, and although he suffered a monster hit in last week’s race, he can secure another trophy by finishing fourth or better at PIR and the Florida season finale.
And if Johnson does manage to remain atop the leader board, where should the feat rank in NASCAR annals?
As big as Richard Petty’s 200 career wins? Bigger?
“I would say both are incredible feats, but I think (Petty’s) 200 wins is far, far ahead of winning four in a row,” said Hall of Fame driver/owner Junior Johnson, who was Yarborough’s car owner during the record stretch. “What Jimmie is doing is still a big thing. I won three in a row with Cale and so I know. It’s just hard to keep a team going to accomplish that kind of thing because it’s almost unheard to win even one championship, much less four in a row.
“As long as the boys (Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus) stay together, they’ll be contenders for championships on down the road because they’re both good at what they do.”
As impressive as Petty’s 200 career win mark is, Kevin Harvick still believes Jimmie Johnson’s potential four straight titles ranks along side.
“I think it has to be right there (with Petty’s record),” Harvick said. “Obviously, Richard Petty has done a lot for the sport. But I don’t think he’d win 200 races today. The way they raced back then, they had a lot more opportunities because they raced a lot more races to make that number what it is.
“I’m not saying the sport wasn’t hard back then. But winning four championships today, I wouldn’t really think that was possible.”
Even Johnson has difficulty believing he is in position to do what no others have.
“I didn’t think it was possible,” said Johnson, who is about to join Lee Petty (11) and Buck Baker (eight) as the only drivers to finish in the top five in the championship standings in each of their first seven fulltime seasons. “I looked at what Jeff had accomplished, race wins and four championships, and that was probably the last we’d see something like that with how competitive the sport is.
“I’m blown away and honored and enjoying every minute of what we’re doing here, and hopefully that we can do it right these next (two) races, and do something that’s never been done before.”
And if Johnson does?
“As much as you’d really like to blow the horn for your guys, as a racer, I have to say, this (would be) rare air,” Toyota Racing Development president Lee White said. “Jimmie and (team owner) Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus and that whole team, they deserve all the accolades.
“For people not to give them the respect they’re due, it’s just not fair.”
Fair or not, many share White’s thoughts, including Hendrick.
“(A fourth straight title) would have to be up there pretty high,” Hendrick said. “I think Jimmie’s career – his full body of work – will rank right up there, too. All the things he’s accomplished, in a relatively short period of time, have just been amazing.
“He’s won the championships, the big races and the pressure races. I don’t see how anyone could deny him that recognition (as one of the best ever).”
Ray Evernham, Gordon’s former crew chief in the powerful Hendrick stable, isn’t shy about showering Johnson with accolades.
“As far as championships, barring any crazy thing happening, he’s going to stand alone,” Evernham said. “It’s still early in Jimmie’s career; it’s not like he’s been driving for 20 years. Who knows how many he’ll win? People just don’t seem to get the credit they deserve for what they’re doing while they’re doing it.
“If you go back in history, you say, ‘That guy was really good.’ I think what Jimmie and Chad and the No. 48 team are doing is going to put Jimmie in the top five drivers all-time in NASCAR history. What’s he’s doing is incredible.”
As good as Evernham and Gordon were together, Jack Roush believes Knaus and Johnson are their equal.
“It’s very impressive,” said Roush, who owns Chase cars driven by Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. “The stars have got to line up to do something like that. Jimmie’s got chemistry with Chad that is unsurpassed. It’s as good as the chemistry between a driver and crew chief has ever been. That is an incredible advantage in terms of the performance of the car.
“If Jimmie’s fourth championship measures up to Richard Petty’s success, I don’t choose to pass judgment on that. But it’s an incredible accomplishment.”
What does Petty say?
“If you look back all through the years in all sports, there’s always been a dominant athlete,” Petty said. “It just so happens Jimmie has been dominating more than the average kid.”
– Mark Armijo is the former auto racing beat writer for the Arizona Republic and is now a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com2 Comments