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Sturbin: More Hardware For Jimmie

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, December 2 2009
Jimmie Johnson has No. 4 in hand. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Jimmie Johnson has No. 4 in hand. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Voting for 2009 Driver of the Year closes on Wednesday, and barring a Miguel Cabrera moment by one of the 20 media panel members, it appears Jimmie Johnson will be a unanimous selection.

As was the case last year, the leading contenders are Johnson, first driver in the 61-year history of NASCAR to win four consecutive Sprint Cup championships, and Tony Schumacher, winner of a record six consecutive NHRA Top Fuel titles and seven Full Throttle Drag Racing Series crowns overall.

Schumacher won a record-tying 15 races en route to the 2008 DOY honor, only the third drag racer to win the award in its 42-year history. That vote snapped Johnson’s two-year hold on the award, coinciding with his first and second Cup titles. Schumacher won five of seven finals this season in the U.S. Army Dragster for a two-point margin over archrival Larry Dixon in the closest Top Fuel championship in history. Recall that Dixon’s team, led by co-owner/tuner Alan Johnson, exited Don Schumacher Racing after the ‘08 season, leaving “The Sarge” to rebuild with crew chief Mike Green.

Despite overcoming those considerable obstacles, Schumacher was overwhelmed by Johnson on a teleconference last week during which votes were cast for Fourth Quarter DOY. That doesn’t bode well for Schumacher in the final balloting.

For those unfamiliar with the process, the panel votes via teleconference for quarterly DOY winners. Nine points are awarded for a first-place vote, with six points for a second-place vote, four for third, three for fourth, two for fifth and one for sixth. The final vote that decides DOY, however, is done via a written “secret” ballot, with each panel member required to list the reason(s) for his/her selection.

My thinking was that Schumacher might get what amounted to “sympathy” votes during the quarterly process, with panelists pointing toward the final vote to acknowledge Johnson. Not so. The buzz created by Johnson’s historic championship run – including a feature story bannered across the cover top of the latest edition of Sports Illustrated – has all but shoved Schumacher’s season into the background.

Johnson, rightly so, likes his chances after recording six poles, seven wins, 17 top-five and 25 top-10 results in the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet Impala SS.

Asked during NASCAR’s weekly teleconference if he’d have any problem voting for himself, even in light of Schumacher’s latest accomplishments, Johnson said, “No, I’d love to see myself as the winner of that great award, but I didn’t realize that Schumacher has six in a row. That’s phenomenal. I also think (about) Donny Schatz, him winning four in a row in the World of Outlaws. Yeah, I’m glad I don’t have to decide. It’s going to be a tough decision for the panel.”

Johnson’s fourth Cup title pulled him into a tie with Jeff Gordon, his teammate and mentor at Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon, meanwhile, is the only four-time winner of Driver of the Year (1995, 1997-98 and 2001), a gap Johnson continues to close. Nine drivers have won multiple DOYs, with open-wheel icon Mario Andretti _ first winner in 1967 and 1978 and 1984 _ and NASCAR’s Darrell Waltrip (1979 and 1981-82) the current three-time honorees.

Johnson said his success rate, which has allowed him to match Sir Jeff’s NASCAR titles in just eight seasons, has been “humbling.”

“I can remember looking at him with wide eyes, and it was like, ‘Wow, how did you do it? How do you get there?’ ” said Johnson, who finished 141 points ahead of runnerup and Hendrick teammate Mark Martin. “And really coming to grips with it in my mind that there’s no way I would ever do it. So to be here and to have the same amount of championships and the experience and all the success we’ve had and race wins, it’s hard to believe. When I really think about it, it is really, really hard to believe that eight years ago, I was like, ‘Hey, man, can you help me win one?’ And here we are with all this.”

Remarkably, a third DOY for Johnson would allow him to match the combined total won by seven-time Cup champions Richard Petty (1971) and Dale Earnhardt (1987 and 1994). It’s just further evidence that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus – call them Team Cerebral –are carving out space among motorsports’ all-time elite at a prodigious pace.

“It’s tough for me to really reflect on it when I’m still competing,” said Johnson, whose 18 career Chase victories are three times the total of any competitor. “Towards the end of my career I’m sure I’ll focus a lot more on it, but right now we’re just kind of in a rhythm of things, and I hope to keep it going. There’s no guarantees it will continue. But I’m just trying to keep the same mindset, same work ethic, same focus and just see how long we can keep this thing moving.”

Meanwhile, the above Cabrera mention is in reference to the recent 2009 American League Most Valuable Player Award voting. Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Maurer received 27 of 28 first-place votes from members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. But in what rates as a what-was-he-thinking moment, one voter cast his ballot for Detroit Tigers’ first baseman Cabrera…who wound up fourth overall. Go figure, Hot Stove Leaguers.

For the record, the DOY media panel includes three staff members of RacinToday.com –managing editor Jim Pedley, senior writer Mike Harris and this reporter. Final voting results for the 43rd edition will be featured on the site, new home of the most prestigious motorsports award in North America.

Here are additional candidates worthy of shout-outs in 2009:

Hector Arana, Mike Edwards and Robert Hight – Each emerged as a first-time NHRA professional champion: Arana in Pro Stock Motorcycle, Edwards in Pro Stock and Hight in Funny Car. Arana won five races and eight poles on his Lucas Oil Buell, while Edwards posted five wins and 16 poles in his A.R.T./Young Life Pontiac GXP. Hight won three of six Countdown to 1 races in the Auto Club Ford Mustang in a highly entertaining squabble with John Force Racing teammate and sister-in-law Ashley Force Hood. Each had a wonderful human story to tell, as Arana (19 seasons), Edwards (14 seasons) and Hight (five seasons) cashed-in on their sweat equity. But during a season in which Schumacher’s accomplishments are proving to have a short shelf-life, expect this trio to be overlooked.

Dario Franchitti – The Scotsman’s return to the IndyCar Series after an aborted attempt at NASCAR (both with team-owner Chip Ganassi) produced Dario’s second championship in three years. Franchitti won a career-best five races in the No. 10 Target Dallara/Honda, including the season-ender at Homestead-Miami Speedway, to clinch the title by 11 points over teammate Scott Dixon. It was the third-closest margin in series history, and crowned Franchitti as the third driver to win multiple IndyCar titles. But be advised that no IndyCar driver has won Driver of the Year since the Indy Racing League’s inaugural season in 1996. The last open-wheel driver to win DOY was Cristiano da Matta in 2002, the year the diminutive Brazilian won the Champ Car World Series title.

Kyle Busch – Another whirlwind NASCAR season saw Busch clinch his first Nationwide Series championship and win a combined 20 races in Nationwide (nine), Sprint Cup (four) and Camping World Truck (seven). Kyle’s petulant behavior when he doesn’t win _ he finished second a record 11 times in NNS this year! – remains an easy flash-point for his many critics. Case in point, Busch generated a torrent of media scrutiny when he Pete Townshend-ed that Sam Bass-designed Gibson guitar trophy at Nashville Superspeedway in June. Busch also led a series-record 2,698 Nationwide laps in his No. 18 Z-Line Designs Toyota Camry and stood atop the points standings for 30 of 35 weeks, including the last 29 in a row. Still, when it comes to Cup, Kyle, we need to find out…Who R U?

Ron Hornaday Jr. –  Claimed his record fourth Truck Series championship for team-owners Kevin and DeLana Harvick during a season in which Chevrolet announced impending cuts to its factory support. Hornaday’s six-victory campaign was highlighted by a record-tying five wins in a row in the No. 33 Longhorn Chevy Silverado. Hornaday, 51, scored his previous titles in 1996, 1998 and 2007.

Mark Martin –  Nobody raced Jimmie Johnson harder during the Chase for the Sprint Cup than Martin, who began the 10-race postseason seeded No. 1. Martin has re-invented himself at age 50 with Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 5 Kellogg’s /CARQUEST Chevy. Now a five-time championship runnerup, he has another two seasons (at least) to claim that elusive first Cup title.

Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney – Collaborated on their second Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series Daytona Prototype title in three years by six points over 2008 champions Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas of Ganassi Racing. In so doing, the guys wheeling Texas businessman/racer Bob Stallings’ No. 99 GAINSCO Insurance Pontiac Riley posted four victories, six poles and led 253 laps. Gurney and Fogarty closed 2009 as the most successful DP duo in series history with 12 victories, and Fogarty is the all-time pole-winner with 14.

Donny Schatz – Became just the second driver to win four consecutive World of Outlaws titles in the nomadic series’ 30-plus year history. Schatz earned his second consecutive title driving for Tony Stewart Racing, making him the only driver other than 20-time Outlaws champion Steve Kinser to win four…and four consecutive. Schatz won 12 times this season – in comparison to Joey Saldana’s 21 “A”-Feature victories – but led the series with 39 top-five finishes. As in all forms of racing, consistency rules.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, December 2 2009
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