RICHMOND, Va. _ Over the last two weeks it has been more than obvious teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have been racing each other harder than ever on the race track. These buddy-buddy teammates are now drawing attention for their on the track run-ins, but does Gordon’s aggression elude to a larger trend?
Any time a team becomes dominant in one sport, the competition is forced to change the way it plays the game. When the New York Yankees went on a streak in the late 1990s, other franchises were forced to reexamine how they attracted top players to their team. When the New England Patriots had their runs at NFL titles, other teams altered the way they prepared for games. With Jimmie Johnson working on a possible fifth-straight championship, it is becoming clear the competition has changed the way it treats the four-time champ on the track.
“I think everyone probably races Jimmie a little different,” said Denny Hamlin. “When you have someone who has the success he’s had and won all the races he has, people get tired of it and they don’t want to give you anything. That’s where the road to two-in-row, three-in-a-row, four-in-a-row, maybe five, whatever, that is tough because people are going to try that much harder to beat you and will give you less and less.
“That’s what’s been most impressive about each championship,” Hamlin said. “I know every single year people race him a little bit harder. This year will be no exception. It’s just something he’s going to have to deal with even though he may not rough anyone up on the race track. He’s never done that to me, but I’m still going to race him really hard because I’m trying to take his spot in the sport.”
Over the last four years, Johnson has solidified his spot among the sport’s best by racking up four titles, 32 wins, 69 top-5s, 100 top-10s and 6,695 laps led. Numbers like that are sure to get under the competition’s skin.
Now, with the competition bringing more and more competitive cars each week, the pressure on Johnson and the No. 48 team is starting to show. Nothing has illustrated that more than his on-track run-ins with Gordon.
“When somebody dominates the sport like that, he’s taken a majority of the guys out of the picture,” Gordon said. “That is what is amazing to me that he doesn’t have the media exposure and some of the fan following and some of those things more than he does because I feel like he’s done everything he possibly could do. I would agree with that and we haven’t had the package to compete with him. That’s what I’m excited about this year is I feel like I do.”
The only driver, besides Gordon, to seriously challenge Johnson for the title over the last four years was Carl Edwards in 2008. Edwards won three of the last four races – making it nine on the year – yet Johnson was still able to take the title by 69 points. Since that challenge, Edwards has been winless and unable to run with Johnson as he did over the course of the 2008 season.
“They’re fast and they’re good,” Edwards said. “We’ve been able to race with them and beat them, but we just have to work to get our cars better. They do an amazing job. The thing I keep in my mind is that we have beaten them, we know how to beat them, we can do it, we just have to do it.”
With how bad he’s been beating the competition over the last four years, it seems drivers would have been gunning for the No. 48 team harder earlier. However, fast cars and a clean driver behind the wheel have made it difficult for other drivers to get upset with Johnson. Up until this year, Johnson has kept his nose relatively clean and out of other drivers’ business.
“I think he’s clean enough to where no one really any reason to retaliate to the 48,” Hamlin said. “He just flat out beats you, straight up.”
While he has the field gunning for him more aggressively than ever, Johnson does not feel he is being raced any different than before.
"No, the culture on track is that you race people how they race you,” Johnson said. “And I've always had a great rapport with the competitors on track and have been able to race really hard for championships and wins. In that respect, I have a lot of friends out there; although they're tired of me doing well. That is true. But there is a lot of respect on tract because of how the relationships work."
In the first nine races of the year, Johnson has a 26 point lead in the standings, three wins, five top-5s, six top-10s and 364 laps led. Looking at the stats, it is clear Johnson is once again the guy to beat. With the rest of the competition turning up the heat, it is on Johnson to stand his ground and keep doing what he’s done best for the last four years – pissing them off.
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