Happy Hour: Johnson (who else?), Larson, Montoya and Vickers

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Nick Bromberg
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Throughout the week you can send us your best questions, jokes, rants and just plain miscellaneous thoughts to happyhourmailbag@yahoo.com or @NickBromberg. We'll post them here, have a good time and everyone's happy. Right? Oh who are we kidding, this is NASCAR. No one is ever happy.

Happy Hour is back! Glad to be here, and I promise to pull up a chair and stay a while. Watkins Glen has always been one of my favorite race weekends of the year, because of my affinity for road course racing and given how entertaining the races seem to be. But I'll admit that it's going to be really weird without Tony Stewart, who has been in 521 Sprint Cup Series races. That was when I was... well, it's been a long time when there's been a Cup race without Stewart.

This week, we talk a little Stewart, but let's start with two divergent Jimmie Johnson letters. Not only do they have different opinions, they're also very different in length too. Let's do this, shall we?

When I read a NASCAR story on Yahoo!, I always try to read as many of the fan comments as I can. These days, it seems there are two distinct camps: those who believe Jimmie Johnson is the Second Coming, and those who are tired of Jimmie Johnson.

Now, why would anyone be tired of Jimmie Johnson? The idea of five consecutive championships comes to mind. Look at the two men who have seven championships, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Neither EVER won more than TWO consecutive championships [Petty in '71-'72 and '74-'75, Earnhardt in '86-'87, '90-91, and '93-94].

In other words, there was some uncertainty in the outcome of the points races in those days. There was a level of parity, if you will, among the upper-tier teams. Compare that with Johnson's 5 consecutive championships, when not even one of the other three cars fielded by his own owner group came close. It makes people begin to wonder if, indeed, "the fix is in." I'd like to believe it's NOT, but SOMETHING is holding back 42 other teams and 50 drivers.

Part of the allure of racing is the uncertainty...not knowing who is going to win. When you take that away, and announcers and so-called "journalists" start sounding like fawning Johnson sycophants, and it doesn't take long for fans--especially fans of the other drivers--to become fed up.

I doubt that you'll do much with this letter, because I believe from what I've seen in Yahoo! race chat that Yahoo!'s reporters are already in the "all-Johnson, all-the-time" corner, and will write me off as a "hater." But my experience as a NASCAR fan goes back to the times when local favorite "Chargin' Charlie" Glotzbach was still winning races now and then--again, that "uncertainty" thing made those days exciting. Petty didn't win 'em all; Pearson, Baker, Yarborough, and even Brickhouse and Hamilton won a few. And I remember when guys like Bonnett and Allison and yeah, even a Waltrip and a Rudd won some races. NO ONE was as dominant in the "golden age" of NASCAR as Johnson is today; that's probably a big part of the reason it WAS the "golden age" of NASCAR, because there was a bit of parity.

Sometimes, in those days, NASCAR would change a few rules to ensure parity. And sometimes that angered some drivers and teams. But Big Bill France and Bill Jr. apparently realized that, like the first Talladega race, it's all about the show. And in those days, there were MANY stars in the show. Today, it's quickly becoming the Jimmie and Chad show, and some of us are wondering when some level of parity may return to Cup racing. Until it does, lots of fans seem to be tuning out of the reruns. SS/DD/JJ ["Same Stuff, Different Day, Jimmie Johnson"] doesn't seem to be a winning programming strategy. The thrill is gone, as B.B. King said, because the suspense is gone, for the most part. Bring back some suspense, bring back some parity among the drivers--hell, a little parity even among just the HENDRICK drivers would be a huge improvement over the product NASCAR is selling today.

[And the press fawning over no-win Danica is part of the same type of coverage that alienates fans. Michael Waltrip went 462 races before he won one; I'm beginning to wonder if Danica will approach Mikey's level of futility before she sees the inside of Victory Lane.]
- Buzz

It's really not often that I'm accused of being a Jimmie Johnson homer. Does that make me one of Vader's stormtroopers?

The concept that Jimmie Johnson has utterly dominated the show in NASCAR and is doing it to historic levels is both overblown and also true. Has Johnson been the best driver in NASCAR over the past 10 years? Yes. Has that been clear in perhaps the most competitive era in NASCAR? Yes. On a purely statistical level, does it rank at or above the seasons posted by drivers in the NASCAR Hall of Fame? No, five straight championships excepted. (Though given the disparity in points rules, ranking Chase titles vs. non-Chase titles is an intriguing discussion.)

In his best season, 1967, Richard Petty won 27 races in a 49 race season. (He competed in 48 of those.) He finished in the top 10 40 times that year, and won 18 poles. Jimmie Johnson's best season in terms of raw numbers is 2007. In that year, he won 10 races, scored 24 top 10s and won 4 poles. Petty's ratios are much stronger.

Petty won 10 or more races seven times, including 13 wins in 30 races in 1975. Pearson did it five times, including 11 wins in 18 races in 1973. Cale won 10 races twice. Johnson's hit double digits just that one season. There's been much more of this "uncertainty" that you speak of in the Johnson era.

And do I need to mention how many races were won by lapping the field in the times of Petty, Pearson and Yarborough? Sorry Buzz, but I think you're looking back through some rose colored glasses.

The power rating should say Jimmie Johnson on top again with the other losers behind........

I love when we get that aforementioned contrast. Power Rankings have been a little vanilla (see what I did there?) this year at the top spot, simply because of Johnson's crazy points lead and the inability of other drivers to capitalize on the "bad" finishes the team has posted this year, like on Sunday at Pocono.

What is the possibility of having Kyle Larson drive as Tony's replacement? It's my understanding that he's sort of in Ganassi's camp as his development driver but since he's not racing full-time in Cup, could he be a consideration? Or does the fact that he's racing full-time in Nationwide preclude that possibility?
- R

I wouldn't discount the possibility, but at the same time, I'm not sure that it's incredibly strong, either. Larson has shown how good he can be the more track time he gets on a circuit, and that track time is only going to increase as the Nationwide Series hits tracks for the second time this season in the late summer and fall. And while no one is denying his talent, is 20 races enough experience to promote him to cars with more horsepower? I don't have the answer to that.

That said, when I think of the idea of Larson in Stewart's car, I can't help but think of Jamie McMurray in Sterling Marlin's car. McMurray was in his second full Nationwide season that year, but after Marlin's neck injury, he won in his second start and his Cup career was off and running. No, that doesn't mean I think Larson would win if he jumped in Stewart's car -- but the parallels are there.


Given how many incidents JPM seems to be in & how hyped he was coming into NASCAR, is he a considered a bust (2 wins/8 years)?
- Chris

This is a good question. Is there a middle ground here? It's not that Montoya hasn't acclimated himself well to stock cars -- it seems that whenever he has a good oval run something goes wrong. And Ganassi has struggled recently with equipment, so Montoya (and McMurray) haven't been in top-flight stuff recently, though the team has made strides this season.

It ultimately comes down to how you view former F1 drivers' expectations when coming to NASCAR. And whatever standards they are, they need to be similar for a driver like Nelson Piquet Jr. too.

Montoya's free agent status at the end of the year is an interesting one. If he doesn't re-sign with Ganassi, is he still in the Cup Series in 2014?


Will anybody be able to beat Vickers this weekend?

The Vickers contingent is back! Of course not, Sean. Brian is going to lead every practice, get the pole, and lead every lap of the race. And then afterwards we'll still do the song and dance with MWR and Aaron's, with the company still hemming and hawing about its return to the team next year with Vickers as the driver.

See! There's no Johnson above everyone else conspiracy here!

Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
Race team preparing for life without Tony Stewart
Max Papis to fill in for Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen
Power Rankings: Hendricks dominant at the top