Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sprint Cup 2009, Race 36: Jimmy Johnson Makes History with 4th Championship

Before we discuss the finale of the 2009 Sprint Cup Season, we need to vent about something we saw this weekend that is very disturbing. Punkish behavior is hardly a topic that should be part of the end of the season discussion but this weekend showed examples of this that one would hope the sport is a little too mature to see happen.

While we have not covered the Nationwide series this year given it’s been essentially a one car championship field for most of the season for Kyle Busch, much of the competition seems to be just Saturday money for Sprint Cup racers, and that the start and park phenomenon is even more out of control for the junior circuit, a conflict between two drivers with Sprint Cup credentials has drawn our fire costing our respect of two drivers tremendously. Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski have been feuding for most of the second half of the season, each driver quick to blame the other with Hamlin being the most vocal. In yesterday’s race, when close enough to attack, in what clearly was not a racing move, Hamlin rear-ended Keselowski causing the #88 Chevy to spin out.

Denny Hamlin has looked like a driver with a tremendous future enjoying tremendous success in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series serving as Joe Gibbs Racing’s only competitor in “The Chase” this year. Going into this season, Hamlin’s conduct would have been seen as hard-nosed and competitive. This year, he’s become one of the biggest whiners when a microphone is stuffed in his face. It’s always somebody’s fault and “boo hoo, boo hoo” all over the airwaves. A professional driver does not attack a competitor for the sheer purpose of causing a wreck. If it’s hard hitting racing and moving somebody out of the way when the race is on the line in short track racing, that’s an entirely different matter. Moves that are part of winning the race are one thing. Moves that are for the sake of the driver is simply pissed off are never acceptable. The legendary fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison was fueled by red hot competition in the 1979 Daytona 500. It’s a matter of passion versus immaturity.

Tony Stewart and Juan Montoya entered the final race thinking of all kinds of “would have’s, could have’s, should have’s” as they were both not in a position to win the 2009 Sprint Cup trophy but were the toast of the field at various points in the season before Jimmie Johnson started to run away with everything. Metal met metal today, one machine with the #14 and the other with the #42. It was an afternoon lost for the #42 Ganassi-Earnhardt Chevy spending much time off the track. However, once the car was patched up and ready to go racing again rather than focusing on the best outcome for the race, the mercurial former IRL driver sought the #14 car, rear-ended Tony Stewart’s ride causing the Office Depot Chevy to brush its driver side front fender on an inside retaining wall.

When a driver clearly goes into attack mode as Denny Hamlin did yesterday and Juan Montoya did today, regardless of what led up to it, NASCAR must slam these drivers hard. While they might think they’re just laying on little love taps, there are 41 additional cars besides the two drives involved whose fortunes and lives hang in the balance. This is not a matter of NASCAR becoming too polite or not allowing passion, it’s simply a matter of driver safety, the most important consideration of all.

There is simply no accounting for just how horrible the 2009 season has been for Dale Earnhardt Jr. In the waning races of the season with seemingly nothing to lose but all to gain, the hapless #88 car continues to find bad luck as was the case today with tire trouble. How a few top ten finishes and a win or two could have taken the hurt out of a bad season. Lance McGrew and the driver have much work to do in the off season. How much of it is Junior’s damaged psyche and fractured confidence is hard to assess. Perhaps he needs to start a rip-roaring all fun vacation immediately, put 2009 behind him and then gear up for the season that fulfills the promise granted when he signed with the sports’ best garage.

How historical an accomplishment is Jimmie Johnson’s fourth consecutive championship? Consider this: he joins a fraternity of just three other drivers with four or more championships sharing four championships with teammate and partial car owner, Jeff Gordon, exceeded by Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty with seven. None of them won four in a row. Consider Jimmie Johnson’s rookie season was 2002 and has never finished a season lower than 4th, his rookie year. In 2003 and 2004, he finished second then finished 3rd in 2005 before beginning the championship run. With 47 wins, he stands 13th over all in just eight full seasons. Should he win just three races in 2010, he’ll tie Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett with 50 wins, tying them for 10th place. Lee Petty with 54 wins and Rusty Wallace with 55 would be next in line before a huge margin to reach Dale Earnhardt’s mark at 76 career wins.

Lost in Johnson’s success as a driver and Chad Knaus as the crew chief supporting all four championships is just how dominant Hendrick Motorsports has been since winning their first championship in 1995 with Jeff Gordon after Dale Earnhardt’s final championship with Richard Childress in 1994. Since 1995, Rick Hendrick’s teams have won nine championships, 4 a piece for Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, and one for Terry Labonte. In that run Robert Yates won one cup with Dale Jarrett. Joe Gibbs won three championships, two with Tony Stewart and one with Bobby Labonte. Roush/Fenway has two championships: Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch. This is the kind of achievement that only the New York Yankees, the Boston Celtics in their glory years, and UCLA basketball during John Wooden can understand. The depth of their success for 2009 is also noteworthy wrapping up the first three positions, with Johnson, Mark Martin, and Jeff Gordon. Tony Stewart finished 5th and Ryan Newman finished 9th in essentially Hendrick’s equipment.

Surely, Mark Martin’s accomplishment is noteworthy. Having been racing part time for the past two seasons, Martin was competitive all season after some initial difficulties in the earliest races. The 2009 campaign surely adds to his reputation of being the greatest driver never to win a championship, but how close can he get given some of his second place finishes behind the likes of Dale Earnhardt twice, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and now Jimmie Johnson, all repeat champs.

2009 will be a season easy to forget for Ford entries only finding victory lane three times, twice with Matt Kenseth to begin the season and Jaime McMurray at the 2nd Talladega race. While Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle made “the Chase,” neither driver posted a single victory for the 2009 season and they were not factors in the championship run. The Yates organization essentially faded into oblivion with Travis Kvapil not being able to earn a spot in the top 35 after four races and having to disband. Paul Menard failed to impress with a substandard career. Much attention focused on their working agreement with Hall of Fame racing, putting past champ Bobby Labonte in their stable only to suffer an absolutely embarrassing career. The end result was Yates being absorbed by George Gillett’s Richard Petty Racing. The one thing Yates has done well is create horsepower. In 2009, there will be four Roush/Fenway Fords and four Richard Petty Fords all with the same engines. The fate of Hall of Fame Racing remains uncertain while supposedly the “Legendary” Wood Brothers and Bill Elliott will continue to make a few cameo appearances at select races.

The end of 2008 and the offseason pointed to economic misery for NASCAR racing. Crowds were down and teams were forced to merge. Nevertheless, the Sprint Cup series never failed to have a complete field of racers though one has to wonder what to make of the dreadful “start and park” phenomenon. This situation must be addressed by NASCAR and the team owners.

Joey Logano earned one victory en route to the 2009 Rookie of the Year award showing tremendous growth as the season commenced.

A subject seldom mentioned but surely influential on 2009 results was the testing ban on all NASCAR sanctioned tracks. Members of the Roush/Fenway team indicate their struggles could have been in part due to the inability to test. Testing is also a valuable experience to help inexperienced drivers work on their skills. While the well-financed teams worked at tracks like Rockingham, no longer a NASCAR track, there is no substitute for working at the actual tracks where competition takes place.

The Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series will no longer race at Memphis for 2010 as tracks outside the Bruton Smith and France family empires struggle. There will be no Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Motor Speedway while Bruton Smith continues to look for options to open up that facility for the sport’s top series.

Thus the 2009 season comes to a close as we’ll start looking toward what 2009 will have in store. For many, once Jimmie Johnson took control of the 2009 Chase, it became a bit of a yawner but the hot competition between Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and others during the heat of the summer was highly competitive racing. That the sport held up as well as it did making history for the #48 team is noteworthy given the doom and gloom many saw in store for a sport so intimately related to the fortunes of a floundering automotive industry.
The cold of winter is upon us as the last vestage of summer sports concludes. We look forward to Speed Week at Daytona in February as the first tangible sign winter's chilling grip is near an end.

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