Sturbin: Three For The Show In DOTY Voting
Voting for 2010 Driver of the Year will be tabulated this week, and Jimmie Johnson clearly is dealing from a position of strength.
That was evident during his season-ending teleconference on Tuesday, two days after Johnson had clinched his record-setting fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson is a three-time winner of Driver of the Year, which traces its history to 1967 as the most prestigious honor in North American motorsports.
Speaking as one of the 20 media panel voters, I suggested to Johnson that NHRA Funny Car champion John Force and IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti likely were his biggest competition this year. Asked specifically if he thought the vote would come down to himself and Force – now a 15-time world champion – Johnson was diplomatic.
“It’s hard to say,” Johnson replied. “Dario is no slouch, had an awesome year himself. I think all three are definitely worthy. It was cool, before the race (Ford 400) started, Force stuck his head in the car and wished me good luck at Homestead. It was great seeing him. I didn’t know the outcome of what went on (in Force’s battle with Matt Hagan). He had some very colorful words to express how he won that championship. He’s done so much, at his age (61), with his passion for his sport – if he was crowned Driver of the Year, I’d stand up and applaud, for sure.”
Force won DOTY in 1996, the first drag racer so honored.
Actually, the media panel will deal with two votes beginning with Monday’s conference call. That session will decide the last of the four quarterly DOTY 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. Johnson, NASCAR’s Denny Hamlin and IndyCar’s Will Power were the earlier quarterly winners, respectively.
The final vote that decides DOTY, however, is done via a written “secret” ballot, with each panel member required to list the reason(s) for his/her selection. I’ve been a panel member since 1996, and am pleased to report that with the exception of NASCAR ace Ryan Newman’s selection as DOTY in 2003 (when I voted for World of Outlaws icon Steve Kinser), my finals vote has gone to the eventual winner.
Monday’s conference call will serve another purpose, in that it will give panel members an opportunity to sound-off on their favorite for DOTY. It’s an exercise in talking points that worked to the advantages of NHRA Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson in 2006 and NHRA Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher in 2008.
While those titles have inspired a lobbying effort on Force’s behalf by public relations representative Elon Werner, I expect Monday’s conference call to echo the sentiments of panel member Mike Harris.
“I love John Force – and Dario, for that matter,” Harris said in an email exchange last week. “But how can anybody vote against a guy who just came from behind to win his fifth straight championship? At least, that’s my take.”
With that background, I’ve typically looked at the fourth quarter vote as a consolation prize – a sort of “first runnerup” to my final ballot selection. In other words, I won’t name Johnson or Force or Franchitti as both fourth quarter and final DOTY winner. I intend to spread out the recognition, and hardware.
So, other worthy contenders for the fourth quarter award are three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon of Al-Anabi Racing, who ended Schumacher’s remarkable six-year
reign; the aforementioned Anderson, now a four-time NHRA Pro Stock champion for team-owner Ken Black and rookie NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle champion LE Tonglet, at 20 the youngest professional title-winner in Full Throttle Drag Racing Series history.
Also, Todd Bodine, two-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion for Germain Racing; Brad Keselowski, Nationwide Series champion who gave team-owner Roger Penske his first NASCAR title, and the ever-mercurial Kyle Busch, winner of a combined 24 events in NASCAR’s Cup, Nationwide (13 races) and Truck series. Busch also flashed some new-found managerial skills as namesake of Kyle Busch Motorsports, which clinched the Truck Series owner’s title while searching for sponsorship.
Kudos also are due Jason Meyers, who secured his first World of Outlaws Sprint Car championship, ending the four-year run of Donny Schatz. And Scott Pruett became the first three-time Rolex Sports Car Series Daytona Prototype champion, teamed with Memo Rojas for car-owner Chip Ganassi.
For the record, NASCAR’s Jeff Gordon – Johnson’s Hendrick Motorports teammate/mentor – is the only four-time winner of Driver of the Year (1995, 1997-98 and 2001). Nine drivers have won multiple DOTYs, with open-wheel icon Mario Andretti – first winner in 1967 and 1978 and 1984 – and Johnson and NASCAR’s Darrell Waltrip (1979 and 1981-82) the current three-time honorees.
Let’s review the leading 2010 contenders:
Jimmie Johnson – NASCAR management likely was high-fiving each other silly in their Daytona Beach, Fla., headquarters after the latest issue of “Sports Illustrated” arrived with the banner headline – “Jimmie Johnson Is The Greatest Driver Ever, Yes” – appearing over the face of Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. Whether or not you agree with that premise, Johnson, 35, silenced another segment of his critics by overcoming a 15-point deficit to Hamlin to close out his “Drive for Five.”
Lars Anderson of “SI”called Johnson “the greatest closer in NASCAR’s 62-year history” – which arguably makes crew chief Chad Knaus the greatest set-up man in the seven-year history of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet Impala, prevailed by 39 points after winning six races, posting a series-best 17 top-five finishes and leading a series-best 1,314 laps.
John Force – The oldest champion in all of motorsports at 61 years and six months, Brut Force’s return to prominence punctuated his recovery from a near career-ending 2007 accident at Texas Motorplex where he suffered a broken ankle, punctured leg, severely dislocated wrist, broken toes and fingers, ligament damage and numerous contusions.
Among the 2010 highlights: Force became the first Funny Car driver in the NHRA’s six-event Countdown to 1 history to come from behind on the last day of the season and win the title. Force overcame a 38-point deficit to Hagan at the start of the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at Pomona, and finished with a 42-point margin.
Force won a category-leading six races in his Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang while reaching 11 final rounds, also a category-best. Force reached a category-best four final rounds during the Countdown to 1, with two wins. Force led Funny Car drivers in reaction time winning percentage at .742 – meaning his was the quicker reaction in 49 of the 66 two-car races in which he was involved. That margin was second-best among drivers in all four pro categories. And Force qualified No. 1 three times, bringing his career total to 134 – four behind Pro Stock icon Warren Johnson for the all-time NHRA record. Force since has been presented the prestigious Spirit of Ford Award.
Dario Franchitti – The Scotsman earned his record-tying third IZOD IndyCar Series championship by five points over Power, who took an 11-point lead into the season-ending Cafes do Brasil Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in October. Franchitti won three races, including his second Indianapolis 500, in the No. 10 Target Dallara/Honda fielded by Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Franchitti’s five-point championship margin is the second-closest in series history.
Franchitti , 37, is just the second driver to win three IndyCar Series championships, joining Sam Hornish Jr. (2001, 2002, 2006). Franchitti is the second driver to win consecutive IndyCar championships, again joining Sudden Sam (2001, 2002). And Franchitti has won the IndyCar championship in the last three seasons (2007, 2009, 2010) in which he has competed in the series.
But attention spans are shorter than ever these days, and the relatively early conclusion of the IndyCar schedule will work against Franchitti, as well as the notion that the series remains basically a two-horse competition between Ganassi Racing and Team Penske.
And 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 DOTY was Cristiano da Matta in 2002, the year the diminutive Brazilian won the Champ Car World Series title.
For the record, the DOTY media panel includes three staff members of RacinToday.com – managing editor Jim Pedley, senior writer Harris and this reporter. Final voting results for the 44th edition of DOTY will be featured on RacinToday.com, home site of the award.
Colleague Mark Armijo, a former panel member, is on the record as favoring Force for DOTY. I’ve got until Monday morning to figure it out, and I’ll keep my ballot secret.
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com Comments