HOMESTEAD, Fla. – It's finally over. Jimmie Johnson has officially been eliminated from title contention, which will invariably lead to those bored with his five-year domination of NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series to break out in song. That's understandable. Seeing the same movie over and over and over again can get a bit tedious, especially if you gave it a thumbs-down in the first place.
Throughout his reign, Johnson has been asked to speculate why he didn't garner more support from the masses. It's a silly question, really, because to find the answer all one needs to do is give it a moment's thought. In sports, has there ever been an era of domination that's received universal adoration?
Yankees, Bulls, Niners? Ali, Armstrong, Tiger? Each revered and reviled.
No, it's not Johnson the person some fans came to loath over the past half decade, but rather the dominance itself. He hogged the spotlight they wanted their driver to occupy and, somehow, that made Johnson the bad guy.
But it's worth keeping this in mind: Jimmie Johnson didn't inherit the throne. He earned it.
He grew up in a blue-collar family in Southern California, racing dirt bikes. The only connections he had were the ones he forged, and he forged them by winning. From 1992 to 1998, Johnson competed in four different racing series. He won four awards for rookie of the year.
The only place he didn't win (much) was in NASCAR's triple-A Nationwide Series. Yet after a mediocre rookie season in 2001, he still managed to convince then-Lowe's CEO Bob Tillman to fork over millions of dollars to sponsor him. That story goes something like this: Team owner Rick Hendrick decided to put Johnson in the No. 48 Cup car in 2002. Lowe's was ready to sign on as a primary sponsor but had some reservations about the unproven 26-year-old. When Tillman asked if he could win, Johnson looked at him point blank and replied: "I definitely can win."
It's reminiscent of the first conversation New England Patriots' owner Bob Kraft had with his team's sixth-round pick shortly after the 2000 NFL draft.
"Hi, Mr. Kraft; we haven't met yet. I'm Tom Brady. … I'm the best decision this organization has ever made.' "
Like Brady with Drew Bledsoe above him on the depth chart, Johnson walked into a situation where he wasn't the guy. Jeff Gordon had just won his fourth championship in seven years, putting Hendrick Motorsports at the top of NASCAR's food chain. HMS was inarguably Gordon's team, and the notion that the organization could rise to heights much greater was unfathomable.
How could they improve on five championships in seven years (Terry Labonte won in 1996) and 65 trips to victory lane in the previous 232 races?
Remarkably, Johnson supplied an answer.
From the moment he climbed into the No. 48 Chevrolet, Johnson has been a title contender. In nine seasons, he's finished first five times, second and fifth twice. Only once, his rookie year, has Gordon beaten him – and then by only seven points.
In six decades of NASCAR racing, only one driver had ever won three Cup championships in a row before Johnson won five straight.
In lieu of piling up superlative on top of superlative, how extraordinary Johnson has been can be summed up this way: If a Hall of Fame vote were held today and the choices were Johnson or Gordon, Johnson would get the nod. What Gordon has accomplished is remarkable. What Johnson has is unprecedented.
"It's been an honor to watch him do what he's done," said Tony Stewart, the last driver not named Johnson to win a Cup championship and one of two drivers (Carl Edwards being the other) still in contention for this year's title. "They need to be proud of what they've done the last five years. It's probably something that will never happen again in the history of our sport."
It's with Stewart's last sentiment in mind that, in some ways, the end of the 2011 Sprint Cup season has the feel of a funeral. It's not just that Johnson's five-year run is over, but it's the end of an era we might never see again.
Johnson was officially eliminated from championship contention following last week's race at Phoenix, but it didn't fully hit him until Thursday when, for the time since the Chase began in 2004, he wasn't a part of the championship contenders' news conference. While Edwards and Stewart were talking about their title hopes, Johnson was on Miami's South Beach, shopping with his wife.
Though he has come to grips with the end of his streak, Johnson isn’t happy with how it ended. He ran out of gas in the Chase opener at Chicagoland, collided with Kyle Busch at New Hampshire, wrecked at Charlotte and got outmaneuvered at Talladega. For the first time in six years, he and his team beat themselves.
"I have [come to grips with the streak being over], but I am not pleased with the way we handled things in the Chase," he said Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "So my focus is more on helping us learn from the mistakes we all made as a team – and be stronger and not make those mistakes again.
"To win every single championship year after year just isn't realistic," he continued. "I wanted to keep the streak alive for sure. But there's a lot to learn from this year. We had the speed and the performance on pit road to get it done. We worked all year to finally get there and then we didn't execute, and that's what we gotta fix."
In looking back on the past eight years of being a perennial title contender, Johnson said a weight he never knew existed has been lifted off his shoulders, only to be replaced by a new one &ndsah; the pressure to win again.
Yes, Part I of this story is over, but already Jimmie Johnson is working on a sequel.
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