HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Until recently, there were three sure things in sports. But with Tiger Woods on the shelf and the competition catching up to Roger Federer, that leaves Jimmie Johnson as the surest athlete on the planet.
That's right, Johnson, who on Sunday became just the second man ever to win back-to-back-to-back NASCAR titles, clinching it with a 15th-place finish in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
When you stop to think about it, it's a remarkable accomplishment, really, considering all the variables a race car driver faces on a weekly basis.
Nothing against golf, but Tiger doesn't have to worry about a fellow competitor barreling into him while he's lining up a birdie putt. If a spike breaks off his shoe, his caddie fixes it. And having your ball land in a divot is nothing compared to having a tire blow out without warning at 200 mph.
There's a reason only two drivers in NASCAR's 60-year history – Cale Yarborough being the other – have won three straight titles. It's hard. Really hard.
Not only do you have to minimize mistakes, but you have to be good enough the rest of the time to make up for them when they come. And they will come. That's inevitable.
And just in case you're thinking all Johnson does is turn left, consider this:
Last Friday, qualifying at Phoenix International Raceway came smack dab in the middle of sundown, which anyone with a license can attest is the worst time of day to drive. The difficulty is exacerbated when you're going 150 mph and the sun is aligned perfectly with the front stretch.
Every driver had trouble seeing that day, especially as they entered PIR's Turn 1. The problem was drivers couldn't see their marks – landmarks on the track they've designated as the points where they'll brake, turn or accelerate. Even the great Jeff Gordon, who's won more poles than anyone still racing, had trouble. He had a car he thought could sit on the pole, yet did no better than seventh.
How did Johnson deal with it?
"I just kind of went off of memory," he said, explaining that since he couldn’t' see his marks, he had to trust his mind to remember the braking rhythm he'd established in the three hours of practice earlier in the day. "I just didn’t know where I was going to end up.”
Where he ended up was on the pole.
Going into last Sunday's race with a very comfortable 106-point lead, Johnson could have played it conservatively during that qualifying run. But he didn't.
Instead, he did exactly what Tiger would have done in that situation: He went for the par 5 in two, forsaking the easy layup and the sure-fire par, then wound up draining a triple-breaking, 35-footer for eagle.
These are the things that separate the good from the great. And let there be no doubt, Johnson is great.
In seven seasons, he has never finished worse than fifth in the standings. He has been the runner-up twice, both times in the championship hunt until the final race of the season. And now he has joined Yarborough as the only other driver to win three Cup championships in a row.
If Johnson had a patented fist pump or had survived a bout with cancer, maybe more people would have taken notice by now like they have with Woods and Lance Armstrong – champions of sports that don't normally warrant superstar status here in America.
But Johnson got to where he is by being a good guy. He tells the story about how as an up-and-coming driver he needed to do something to separate himself from all the other up-and-coming drivers. He figured that since racing is so sponsor driven, his best bet was to be a good pitchman – someone a sponsor could rest easy knowing they wouldn't wake up the next morning reading about in the police beat.
In his seven years in the spotlight, Johnson's lone indiscretion was breaking his wrist after an unsuccessful attempt at surfing on top of a golf cart. While that may be the real Jimmie Johnson, who describes himself as a "jackass from El Cajon" (Calif.), it didn't come in front of a camera for everyone to see.
So on Sundays when their names are announced during driver introductions, and a chorus of cheers and boos rain down on Tony Stewart for his temper, Kyle Busch for his arrogance and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for his lineage, Johnson is mostly greeted with indifference.
The irony is Johnson's even-keeled demeanor is likely the biggest factor in his championship run. He never gets too high or too low. He doesn't over-react to things. He lives in the moment, which keeps him focused on the task in front of him.
But while steady may win the race, it's also b-o-r-i-n-g boring, and fans want something in return for their entertainment dollar. It doesn't have to be a fist fight on pit road, but a little drama would go a long way, especially in a sport where the athletes do their thing hidden inside a 3,400-pound automobile.
But that's not Johnson, at least not in front of the camera.
"I don’t feel like you ever really get your true respect while you’re doing it," Gordon said of Johnson, his teammate and friend. "I think it comes years later. And while I think Jimmie is going to go down as one of the all-time greats in our sport, I don’t know if anybody is ready to give him that much credit and respect right now."
On one level, Gordon is right. History will ultimately be the judge of Johnson's greatness.
However, in an era of sport when talk radio hosts' and play-by-play commentators' definition of greatness includes the likes of Ryan Howard, who just struck out again, Johnson should be elevated to his own stratosphere. For right now, he's better at what he does than any other athlete in the world.
Try arguing against that. I dare ya.
- Tiger Woods
- Jimmie Johnson