Ingram: Johnson Carries His Own Yardstick
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:
We take you now back to the thrilling days of yesteryear, when the Lone Ranger was still one of the best known Western heros and Dale Earnhardt Sr. was still ruling the roost in the NASCAR garage.
One afternoon during happy hour practice at Rockingham as Earnhardt Sr. took some of his final practice laps, he heard a comment over the team’s radio from crew chief Andy Petree that caught his attention. Now a color commentator for telecasts of Sprint Cup events, Petree was remarking on the lap times of other competitors. When he got to a young star from Hendrick Motorsports, he referred to still winless bonus baby Jeff Gordon as “Wonder Boy.”
It wasn’t long before Earnhardt Sr. began occasionally referring to Gordon by the handle “Wonder Boy” in the presence of the media and fellow drivers.
The nickname stuck until Gordon began winning some of NASCAR’s biggest races, such as the Brickyard 400, and then started winning championships for the Hendrick Motorsports team. Earnhardt Sr. wasn’t talking about Wonder Boy after Gordon’s move in Turn 2 of the Daytona 500 in 1997 eventually put the black Chevy of “The Intimidator” on its roof as Gordon went on to his first victory in NASCAR’s crown jewel in only his fifth full season.
All this came to mind while wondering how it is that Gordon eventually got the acceptance of NASCAR fans as a bona fide champion, which also occurred for another Midwesterner who followed him south, Tony Stewart. It was because they beat NASCAR’s recognized stars in their prime en route to their early victories, stars such as Earnhardt Sr., who grudgingly gave them the respect they deserved once they had earned it.
For Jimmie Johnson, who won his 53rd career Sprint Cup victory at Dover International Speedway on Sunday, fewer such yardsticks existed when he won three races in his rookie season of 2002. Elder statesman such as Sterling Marlin, Terry Labonte and Rusty Wallace were still making the rounds, but those who had grown up on grits and gritty racing were fewer and far between
That’s part of why I believe Johnson hasn’t been given his due in some quarters of the grandstands. Fans used to boo Gordon because he was good and they didn’t like him beating their heros, just as they used to boo Darrell Waltrip for the same reason. Johnson doesn’t even seem to draw the recognition of being better than his peers – or predecessors.
Now that he’s won four straight titles and is going to make it difficult for Denny Hamlin or Kyle Busch to win a first title at Joe Gibbs Racing, it seems appropriate to start thinking about even bigger yardsticks than consecutive championships for Johnson.
What I like about Johnson is his aggressiveness – on very open display in the first round of this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup at New Hampshire after a poor qualifying session. He’s always made quick decisions about how to get around a competitor and then makes it happen. In an age when anywhere in the middle of the pack is like being caught in the aerodynamic version of quicksand, Johnson is possibly the best in traffic of any in the field.
Using sidedrafting, taking the air off the rear spoiler to loosen up a competitor or taking advantage of the recognition of what happens when No. 48 is in the rearview mirror, he either gets by or makes life very difficult for whoever is ahead of him. If he doesn’t have the speed in his chassis to advance, Johnson usually holds station by carrying it. If his Chevy rolls back through the field like a boulder, it’s invariably because there is something bad wrong with it.
When in the unrumpled and clean air among the top five, Johnson rarely makes mistakes and finds a way to improve the chassis as the race goes on with concise reports on his Chevy’s handling. This was very much in evidence when he overtook championship rival Busch for the lead 63 laps from the finish at Dover.
Like Earnhardt Sr., Johnson rarely loses a race he should win (although Carl Edwards’ first career victory in Atlanta comes to mind) and occasionally wins one he shouldn’t have won (see Sonoma this year). Unlike Earnhardt Sr., Johnson rarely relies on body contact to get past, although it isn’t unheard of.
I bring this up because fans, who have been slow to take up Johnson as one of stock car racing’s all-time greats, have a chance to watch one of the best ever in the history of stock car racing every week. In terms of driving ability and smoothness, I’d compare him to David Pearson, soon to be elected to the Hall of Fame. In terms of aggressiveness, he ranks with Earnhardt Sr., without the need, it seems, to crumple sheet metal. One day soon, we might be comparing Johnson to Richard Petty, because he may be closing in on the career record for Sprint Cup championships.
His Hendrick Motorsports team, the Chase and the arrival of the COT have helped Johnson immeasurably. But check his record against the other drivers at Hendrick over the years, including the venerable Mark Martin. Johnson wins races and titles far more often. Also, Johnson would have won all but one of his titles under the old system of a season-long points system. (Plus, he lost the first one to Kurt Busch by a mere eight points.) Even though all the front-line teams have figured out the COT, it hasn’t slowed the victory pace of Johnson, who has yet to experience a long losing streak during his Sprint Cup career. (He went 10 races without a victory before Sunday.) You don’t hear Johnson talking about “bad tracks” for his team, either.
Johnson has become such a standard that when he takes the lead late in a race he tends to let the air out. The last 63 laps at Dover were not exactly cliffhangers, because few expected Johnson to give up the lead. Afterward, the team and crew talked about all the hard work to make the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy a winner. And there’s certainly a lot of truth to it. But everybody works hard at winning in the Sprint Cup, including Johnson, who has vastly improved his road racing and qualifying efforts in the past several seasons.
For Johnson, the difference is the sort of indefinable quality one doesn’t see in any athlete or sport but once in a generation.
Quote of the Week: Denny Hamlin, who leads Jimmie Johnson by 35 points in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, said he usually doesn’t even see perennial Dover winner Johnson during the races on the Monster Mile and considered a ninth-place finish an accomplishment.
Asked if his Joe Gibbs Racing team made a statement by a relatively good showing on its weakest track in the Chase, Hamlin replied, “I think so. I think a lot of people are just waiting for us to slip up, like we have done in the past. I just don’t see that happening this time around. I just think our team is too focused at this point and we’re running too well for that to happen.
“I think it’s going to go all the way to the wire. My opinion, I think there’s going to be a handful of guys that are going to be racing legitimately for this championship at Homestead. Hopefully we’re one of those groups. That’s a really good track for us. I just don’t see anyone really running away with it this year. The competition’s just too strong.”
See ya! …At the races.
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com Comments