AVONDALE, Ariz. – On one hand, Carl Edwards is the best thing going for NASCAR these days. On the other, he could be the worst.
Edwards' importance isn't measured by backflips, boyish good looks or down-home appeal. It's that he's proving to be a formidable challenger to Jimmie Johnson's dominance, which is something the sport needs if it is to compete for the attention of the American sporting public.
We sports fans are a fickle bunch. We can't sit still through a 162-game season, but we'll stop everything to watch Yankees-Red Sox in mid-May.
Rivalries have a way of catching our attention, regardless of who's playing, because there's bragging rights on the line. With bragging rights comes passion, and when there's passion, there's drama. And drama makes for great reality TV.
This is what NASCAR lacked a year ago when Johnson and Jeff Gordon "duked" it out for the 2007 title. Along the way, they praised each other and visited each other in victory lane. Gordon even bowed to Johnson after Johnson won his fourth straight race.
That's not a rivalry fans can wrap their middle fingers around. That's two guys who just went head-to-head in an 18-hole club championship. No one's dirty or worse for the wear. They're sitting at the 19th-hole bar, in their freshly pressed pants, sipping cognac in between puffs off a stogie.
Jimmie fans and Jeff fans are one and the same. They've got no beef with one another. The only thing they have to argue about is whose wife is hotter.
This isn't to say teammates can't make good rivals. Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace were. So were Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb. But unless that teammate is Dale Earnhardt Jr., no fun is coming out of the Hendrick stable.
This is why Edwards is so important. Though it doesn't necessarily have to be him, he's the driver right now who's posing the biggest threat to Johnson's reign. Three wins – and there could have been a fourth if not for a blown engine at Atlanta – through seven races is Johnson-esque.
"I hope we have a good rivalry," Johnson said Thursday at Phoenix International Speedway, site of Saturday night's Subway Fresh Fit 500. "Maybe not the kind the fans want to see – they probably want to see us get out and fight – but I look forward to hard racing."
The flip side of this is that Edwards dethroning Johnson is a bad thing because it means cutting short a historic run that potentially could vault Johnson into superstardom.
If there's one thing that gets our attention more than a plain old rivalry, it's greatness. For the most part, we don't like watching golf, but we tune in when Tiger Woods is on the course. Why? Because when it comes time to tell our grandkids about how he won more majors than anyone, we want to be able to say we saw him do it.
No, Tiger doesn't have a rival on the course, but he's got one in history. And as long as the two keep challenging each other, we'll tune in.
The same could happen with Johnson. If he were to win a third straight Cup championship in 2008, '09 would be set up as a season for all time. No one has won four championships in a row. Johnson's quest would have the potential to capture the attention of even those who normally wouldn't care, if only because he's chasing history.
Sure, some say Johnson winning all the time is boring, just as they did when the Bulls and Yankees were dominating the 1990s. But there is a threshold, when what's boring becomes captivating. Both the Bulls and Yankees never approached that threshold, hence the boredom. But Johnson is just on the other side.
Cross it, and he becomes the story. Get tripped up and he (or someone else) has to start all over again.
Which one would you rather watch?