Will it ever end? Following a 2010 season in which the seemingly impossible happened, as Jimmie Johnson won his fifth Cup title in a row, coming to rest dangerously close to the sport’s all-time greats, we’re all left to ask one question: Can he possibly do it again?
A lot of fans are probably hoping to see Johnson’s streak come to an abrupt end this year and some even go so far as to argue his titles are “bad for NASCAR.” (A ridiculous argument, by the way. NASCAR survived Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt relatively unscathed and it will survive Johnson, too.)
But whether Johnson can continue his remarkable streak is up for debate. There is plenty of reason to think that 2011 will be same old, same old. But there is also plenty to think that this time, he won’t. As the new season looms, the title question is already at the forefront. Here are six reasons why Johnson will – and won’t – hoist his sixth straight Cup this year.
Why Johnson will win again in ’11
Momentum is a powerful thing. And Johnson has it on his side – five years of it. There are fans (either young or new to the sport, granted) who have never known another champion at NASCAR’s highest level. Runner-up Denny Hamlin was a Cup rookie in 2006, the year Johnson won his first title, which means he has never challenged another driver for the championship. That’s impressive; and while Johnson and his team may trip at times, may even stumble, there’s no sign of slowing down.
When something isn’t working for the No. 48 team, they fix it. When there’s a track Johnson has struggled at, he learns it. Weak spot on the team? They patch it. Johnson is a remarkably consistent driver, and more than that, he wins consistently. The team carries on into 2011 with business as usual. Everyone else is playing catchup.
Say what you want, the No. 48 is the best team in the business. And super-genius crew chief Chad Knaus makes sure that they stay that way. Part of that comes from sponsor loyalty – it’s nice to know where the money is coming from in today’s NASCAR. Part of it comes from nobody on this team ever resting on their laurels. Win or finish last, Sunday is over at noon on Monday. “Forget about it,” is the overriding philosophy, “Because we’re going somewhere else this week, and dwelling on the past isn’t going to help us win.”
Knaus expects – and gets – nothing less than 100% from everyone on the team, all the time. That includes Knaus himself, Johnson, as well as every employee to set foot in the shop at the top of the hill in the Hendrick Motorsports complex. Simply put, this team wins because they expect nothing less. That’s not going to change, though about 42 other teams wish it would.
Say what else you want, there’s a hell of a driver behind that wheel. And he gets better every year. Johnson might not (and that’s debatable) have the most God-given talent in the garage, but his single-mindedness in pursuit of excellence is remarkable. If there’s a racetrack that Johnson hasn’t mastered, he redoubles his effort until he does.
Many fans don’t like Johnson because he makes the whole racing deal look ridiculously easy, and this from a driver who will start just his 10th full Cup season in 2011. And Johnson’s bulldog mentality on track gives the competition fits. Once he’s locked onto something, he simply does not give up.
He’s not a dirty driver, either, and that only adds to the illusion of facility. The adage that racers race others as they are raced is largely true; Johnson races with a fierce desperation, but he rarely, if ever, crosses the line. Yes, he can use the nose of his car to move someone – rubbin’s racin’, son – but he rarely goes further than that. He doesn’t have to. Johnson is pure pleasure to watch drive a racecar – aggressive enough to put a pit bull to shame and so smooth it makes Santana look bad. Sorry to disappoint, but he really is that good.
Why he won’t be called Six-Time just yet
The Law of Averages – nothing lasts forever. And face it, Johnson’s five-year run is the stuff of dreams. Only one other driver (nine-time modified champ Richie Evans) has a longer title streak than Johnson at any non-local level of NASCAR. Given some of the drivers who have not won more than three in a row, what makes Johnson so different (well, see above, but still…)? Unless Johnson retires tomorrow, it’s almost certain that this won’t last ad infinitum. There are just too many variables in the sport to keep a dynasty on top forever.
The competition is good – really good. And it gets better every year. There is a bevy of drivers with the ability to beat Johnson: Four-time champion Jeff Gordon looks to roar back on the scene with a new, technically brilliant crew chief at the helm; Carl Edwards came on strong late in 2010; Hamlin isn’t going anywhere, either, plus is looking to put two Chase meltdowns firmly in the past; and Kevin Harvick, free at last from the shadows of his early career, finally looks ready to be a champion.
They aren’t the only ones, either. With NASCAR’s “have at it, boys” edict, will the competition play nice with Johnson forever if he continues to romp on track? Huge level of respect aside, there has got to be a certain level of temptation – if not to outright dump Johnson every chance they get, then at least to kick him on the rare occasion that he’s down. With 10 drivers chasing him, Johnson should feel the hot breath on his neck.
There are chinks in the armor. 2010 was the first time that Johnson had to go out at Homestead and take the championship. And while wresting the trophy from Hamlin’s grip was arguably Johnson’s most compelling title feat, it was also the result of a disturbing trend within the No. 48: the competition is closing in. While the team is still as good as it gets (see above again), there were moments when they seemed, well – human.
Johnson enters 2011 with a brand new over-the-wall pit crew, and while they were handpicked by Knaus, they were handpicked just weeks ago. Crews take time to gel and the season starts next week. In addition, there are changes to the car this year, and Johnson and Knaus struggled with the feel of the car after the spoiler was reintroduced in 2010, finally getting a tenuous hold on it during the Chase. As difficult as points will be to come by this year, if someone else is strong out of the gate while Johnson lags, the No. 48 team might not be able to pull a Zenyatta out of the bag.
Will he or won’t he? Only time will tell, but as the season looms, there are compelling reasons to think Johnson can ride this wave forever – and others to think it will all come crashing on the shore.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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