What did you take from Jimmie Johnson's performance last week in Texas? What stood out?
No, I'm not referring to any part of the three laps he ran before ricocheting off Sam Hornish Jr. or the tightening of the standings. I want to reflect on everything following that unfortunate incident.
Take it from a guy who's wrecked a few at 160 mph – if you are able to return to the track in a car built by professionals in one month, but repaired in one hour, you're in for the most difficult laps of the year. It's not a whole lot of fun.
Maintaining minimum speed may not seem like a big deal for a race car driver. But Johnson running a few miles per hour off the leader's pace in a car pieced together, barely aligned and hardly aerodynamic was very impressive indeed.
Still, that's not what stood out the most to me.
What impressed me most was that he chose to complete the race even after mathematically having no chance of gaining more positions.
Johnson truly chose the path less taken as most, if not all other drivers, probably would have chosen to avoid unnecessary risk with nothing left to gain or, at the very least, capitalized on beating the crowd out of Texas Motor Speedway as soon as the crew chief said, "Let's call it a day."
That's not what the three-time defending NASCAR champion did; he apparently felt there was more to gain.
Following the incident on Lap 3, I gave little chance of Johnson returning to the track. Beyond the obvious appearance of a wrecked race car, I identified that the right-front tire had reverse camber, meaning the suspension mounts had been torn from the chassis.
Chad Knaus and the 48 crew had to feel the same upon first glance, understanding they could only repair a percentage of the car, leaving another percentage to be replaced altogether.
And through it all, Jimmie Johnson did not exit the car.
I understood him not wanting to talk to reporters about the incident (at least not immediately) and I understood him wanting the moment to himself to reflect on what had happened. But what I did not immediately understand was the statement he was making to his team, to the competition: he may lose the fight, but he would not allow himself to be counted out. The incident had been beyond his control, but the remainder of the race would not be.
In the same way Dale Earnhardt Sr. rallied his team through the combination of his accelerator and bumper, or Jeff Gordon's demonstration of the "refuse to lose" motto, Johnson made clear in Texas that he has no interest in quitting, regardless of the circumstances.
This is the type of leadership incumbent upon a champion. His return to the track, tolerating an ill-handling race car at 180mph all the way to the checkered flag, certainly had an impact on his team. It should have had an impact on everyone watching.
One more thought …
Jeff Gordon acknowledged last week he had gone to NASCAR before the Talladega race and shared his views on what he did not like about bump drafting through the turns. At least one driver took issue with the fact that NASCAR listened to Gordon. To him, I say, get over it.
All of today's drivers deserve to be heard. But not all have earned the same respect Gordon has earned. Having competed in the sport for nearly 20 years, Gordon has earned the right to go to NASCAR and complain at any time. Contrary to this one driver's opinion, Gordon's four Championships and 82 Cup wins do carry a bit more clout than those drivers only a few years into their careers.
This was no different for me in 1995, when it was Dale Sr. and Darrell Waltrip who carried a greater authority when it came to voicing opinion. While I did not always agree with their views and opinions, I accepted that they generally represented all of us due to their time and success in the sport. I always considered that they had earned that right.
I have to believe Wayne Gretzky had that level of authority in hockey, and Michael Jordan had the same late in his NBA career.
It is true that rules changes over the years have been influenced by driver's opinions, but believing that NASCAR would change rules based on one driver's opinion is naïve, at best. The fact is, Jeff Gordon was not the only driver to go to NASCAR to complain about bump drafting, just the only one I heard admit it.