For much of the season, the championship discussion has centered around, “Who can beat Jimmie Johnson … can anyone?” And it’s absolutely right and proper to show deference to the man and team who have eviscerated the competition come Chase time this last half decade. Even with this rough patch, two races in all the debate and argument begins and ends with the Lowe’s Chevy and the implacable Johnson. The rest, until they prove otherwise, are mere pretenders who simply believe they are contenders.
Now, with two races of the Chase squared away and eight more to decide the title, the picture is starting to clear a little. Only Denny Hamlin looks completely out to lunch (or, to put that nicely, ready to concentrate on 2012) but the remaining 11 drivers are separated by a scant 34 points.
So, that variety of choices got me thinking – not so much about whom I think will win; and I still think it will be Johnson – but rather, who would be the best champion for the sport? Who would represent NASCAR the best? Who would, importantly, bring in the new fans?
It’s an interesting question to ponder, given all the ups and many downs we’ve seen in NASCAR these past three to four years with falling TV numbers, sparse attendance, difficulties with attracting and securing sponsors and the general level of economic malaise that has beset stock car racing in a more deep-rooted way than perhaps any other major sport.
Simply put, the champion is important and a sixth title for Johnson, however impressive a feat that might be – and make no mistake, it really would be a feat for the ages in terms of the history of the sport – would register a huge “eh” with the general public. That is not the type of “boost” Sprint Cup needs, right?
So here’s a quick look at each of the 12 drivers (in the current points standings) with some thoughts on what type of champion and ambassador for the sport they would be. I’ve assigned each one a rating out of 10: 10 being the best choice for a champion and one being the worst.
No doubt about it, Smoke would be a popular choice if he was to win a third championship. It seems an age (it is, to be fair – 2005) since Smoke last won the title and if he was to parlay his exceptional early Chase form into hoisting the big wavy trophy in Miami, it would be a win that would be popular with NASCAR fans the country over and it would be a win that other people might notice as well. A good choice, for an aging driver with limited chances: Smoke turned 40 this year.
Kevin Harvick (-7 pts)
The man who replaced Dale Earnhardt, following his untimely passing at the 2001 Daytona 500 would be another popular choice for a champion. There’s something about Harvick that just screams “racecar driver” and were he to manage to unseat Johnson and win the championship, just as with Stewart, it would be a popular result. He might even finally live up to that “Happy” moniker if it actually happened. 8/10
Brad Keselowski (-11 pts)
Keselowski is in many ways a very interesting driver. He has literally come out of the blue (deuce) this summer, exploding onto the scene with wins and top-five finishes. As unlikely as it would have seemed even a month ago, there’s a very real chance Big Bad Brad could run all the way to the title. If he were to win, I think he’d be a popular victor in the NASCAR community (with the odd-rolled eyebrow) but I’m not so sure he has much crossover appeal. 7/10
Carl Edwards (-14 pts)
Edwards is a driver with great crossover appeal and I, for one think he would be a exceptional ambassador for the sport should he pick up the big prize. Articulate, sociable, intelligent and a great driver, Edwards is the complete package. He’s come close before, falling just 68 points short to Johnson in ’08. If he could win it all this time, I’ve no doubt it would benefit the sport in the long run. 8.5/10
Jeff Gordon (-23 pts)
At 40 years old, the original Four-Time has pulled a 180. Once NASCAR’s biggest villain, there’s a heartwarming sentimentality surrounding a man who may only have two or three more chances to grab a Cup. “Losing” two titles through the Chase format has also helped the Rainbow Warrior win over the fanbase; sometimes, an old friend is exactly what you need to take the sport up a level into a new frontier. 9/10
Kyle Busch (-26 pts)
Love him or hate him, you can’t help but feel that a championship for the younger Busch brother would be noticed in and out of the sport. He might have one of those faces only a mother could love (this is a quote from a friend, not me) but there’s no doubt the boy can drive. If he rose up all the way to the title this year, it would certainly be interesting (and volatile, perhaps) in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. 6.5/10 (trending to 8/10)
Matt Kenseth (-26 pts)
Kenseth was the last “regular points” format champion in 2003 and his relentless consistency that year was widely seen as the precursor to the introduction of the Chase. If he won it again, goodness knows what the powers-that-be would come up with next year. All in all, a second crown for Kenseth would be met with, well, great apathy; the pointed, sarcastic humor we see written on Twitter doesn’t exactly translate onto the small screen. 3/10
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-26 pts)
In simple terms, Junior would be the best choice for a champion given his huge fanbase and wide appeal. What a story it would be, too, with both father and son (like the Jarretts) winning a championship. It would sure be fun to watch the celebration. 10/10 Winner Winner chicken dinner
Kurt Busch (-28 pts)
Busch might be an even less popular choice for a champion than Johnson. Plus, he’s already won one Chase (the inaugural version of 2004). Trouble with Busch is that he just comes across as a narcissistic, whiny baby. He’s hard to root for and he’d be even harder to get excited about should he win a second championship.
Jimmie Johnson (-29 pts)
See above. It’s time for someone else to win.
5/10 (four points for the achievement)
Ryan Newman (-34 pts)
I’m not sure a Sprint Cup title for Newman would resonate that far. Within the sport, it would be fantastic to see an Army-sponsored car win the title, but Newman is a dry wit and I’m not so sure that deadpan humor would resonate outside the garage. A title for Newman wouldn’t be a bad thing; it just wouldn’t move the sport forward. 5/10
Denny Hamlin (-66 pts)
Is he even in the Chase? It doesn’t appear so. But if Hamlin pulled out a miracle and won it, I have to say I’m not sure it would (like Newman) resonate that much.
About the author
Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.
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