By winning three of the first five Chase races, Jimmie Johnson appears to be on his way to a record-breaking fourth straight Sprint Cup Series title. Johnson’s lead at the halfway point in the Chase is a comfortable 90 points. With a string of tracks coming up that set up nicely for Johnson, the burning question isn’t “Will Johnson win another title?”, but rather, “With attendance slipping and television ratings not where NASCAR would like them, is the dominance of the No. 48 team bad for the sport?”
In other sports we have witnessed dominant performances by the New York Yankees, Chicago Bulls, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and New England Patriots. Even in NASCAR, Johnson is not the first driver in history to go on a tear. Yet, despite his amazing success over the last four years, Johnson seems to command little respect from fans and some in the media.
The legendary Junior Johnson, recently named one of the first five inductees in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, told reporters on Friday he believes the No. 48 team has a strong chance at winning its record-breaking fourth straight championship. However, the feeling among many pundits and fans is the 48 team is stinking up the show and hurting NASCAR in the process.
“Man, I'm just out there doing my thing. People - I don't think we've been stinking up the show for starters,” Johnson said. “I mean, I guess I don't understand why people would have a problem with it. Everybody tunes in to watch Tiger win. Everybody tunes in to watch (tennis star Roger) Federer do his thing on certain courts. I'm just doing my thing. I think there's a lot of fans out there that are excited to see what this 48 car is doing, and a lot of people are happy and rooting for us to win a fourth. The rest of them, oh, well.”
The argument against Johnson and his success is that the dominant performances are turning fans away. Television ratings seem to support this argument; Nielson Media Research reported Saturday night’s NASCAR Banking 500 earned a 3.0 overnight rating, down 14.3 percent from 2008. Unable to appreciate the historical significance of his accomplishments, maybe fans would rather see more parity in the competition and a fresh face in Victory Lane once in awhile. This might be leading them to change the channel.
Team owner Rick Hendrick understands how fans might feel now, but added that his driver will be appreciated – eventually.
“There's some great drivers that have been in our sport, for sure, but you look at his record since he entered this sport, and you've got to say that he'll go down as one of the greatest drivers that's ever been in the series,” Hendrick said. “Sometimes you don't get that recognition until later on in your career, and I think that's just normal.”
As a fan when Jeff Gordon went on a tear from 1995 to 1998, I can understand the points being made. During that four-year span, Gordon won three titles, was runner-up the other year, compiled 40 victories, 86 top-5s and 98 top-10s in 126 races. As a fan sitting in the stands while he dominated, sure, it was frustrating, but looking back on that time I know we witnessed something special. The same should be said to those complaining about Johnson’s dominance today.
There is still a lot of racing left. With tracks like Martinsville and Talladega in the mix, anything can happen. This Chase is not over by any means, so don’t tune out just yet. If Johnson is able to pull off another title, it will be history in the making. Twenty years down the road you can say, “I remember when….” If someone is able to come back and take the trophy from the 48 team, it will make for an exciting and compelling end to the 2009 season.
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