Johnson dominates like no other
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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Jimmie Johnson is the most dominant athlete on the planet. Period.
This isn’t to say he can jump higher than Kobe or hit a drive farther than Tiger. But in measuring how much distance there is between first and second, the gap Johnson has put between himself and his competition is larger than any other in major professional sports today.
Johnson won his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship on Sunday. Only one other driver in NASCAR’s 62-year history has won as many as three titles in a row.
In fact, no professional American sports team has won five in a row since the Boston Celtics won their eighth straight in 1966. There’s a reason for this. Leagues want parity because close games sell better than blowouts.
The NFL has its salary cap, so does the NBA and Major League Baseball (sort of). There have been several recent three-peats, but not a single four-peat since the NHL’s New York Islanders from 1980 to 1983.
NASCAR has written so many rules that it’s impossible for one team to drive away from another. It’s why the difference between qualifying first and 37th for Sunday’s Ford 400 was 0.4 of a second.
That’s four-tenths of a second in case you missed the period.
“When I first started in this sport, there were three or four cars you had to beat to win a race, and it was maybe two or three cars to win a championship,” said team owner Rick Hendrick, whose participation in NASCAR dates back to 1984. “Today, you got at least 15 cars that can win a race. You got guys that won multiple races that didn’t make the Chase.
“NASCAR has got us in such a tight box, there are so many talented people, so many talented drivers, so many well-funded teams. It’s hard to do.”
And while we have seen Kobe Bryant and the Lakers win three straight titles and Tom Brady lead the Patriots to three Super Bowl victories in four years, neither has been in contention every season of his career.
In nine seasons, Johnson has entered the final race ranked worse than second in the standings only once, and that was his rookie year (when he was fifth). He lost the title by eight points in 2004 and had a tire blow in the 2005 finale when he was breathing down Tony Stewart’s neck.
Had it not been for the lucky break Kurt Busch got in the ’04 finale and the unlucky blown tire in the final race of the ’05 season, Johnson could be looking at seven titles right now.
“I just saw the list of the couple of seven time champions in front of him,” said Kevin Harvick, who wound up finishing third in the standings. “So I think that one is pretty easy to put into perspective how much they have accomplished.”
The two seven-time champs are Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. They’re the only drivers now with more titles than Johnson. While they are the benchmark when it comes to NASCAR, they never won more than two titles in a row.
Detractors of Johnson will say his dynasty doesn’t compare to Petty and Earnhardt because it has come in the Chase era – when 10 races determine the champion, not the entire season. Hogwash.
In resetting the standings with 10 races to go, bringing 12 drivers within only a handful of points of the lead, the Chase actually increases the possibility for more drivers to win a championship. Transitively, doesn’t that decrease the odds of each driver winning the title?
For 10 straight weeks, Johnson and his team had to be nearly perfect. Denny Hamlin wound up with a 6.3 average in the Chase. Harvick’s was 6.4. Going into Sunday’s race, Johnson actually trailed Hamlin by 15 points. And still he won with room to spare – standing 39 points clear of Hamlin, 41 ahead of Harvick.
“I don’t know if I can answer a question like that,” Johnson said when asked if championship No. 5 solidified his greatness. “The driver or a person should not be up there saying, I’m great. That’s just not my deal. At least me, I’m not going to do it.”
“He’s great,” said Hendrick.
“I concur,” echoed crew chief Chad Knaus.
They’re right, and right now no athlete on the planet is better at what they do than Jimmie Johnson.