A Passionate Lack of Passion for Jimmie Johnson and the Chase

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst INovember 16, 2009

AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 15:  Jimmie Johnson (1L), driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet poses with wife, Chandra Johnson (2L), Angie Harmon(2R) and Jason Sehorn (1R) in victory lane after Johnson won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 15, 2009 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jason Smith/Getty Images

So this is it—the Sprint Cup title is pretty much locked up, and for the fourth consecutive year, the hardware goes home to Jimmie Johnson. That's right, Jimmie Johnson has been the active champion of Sprint Cup for the length of one presidential term.

During their reign as the acting president and vice president of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have done everything right—suppressing any and all challenges from their opposition, making up for their mistakes, playing the game (so to speak) calmly.

They are tacticians in every sense. If we were an equivalent to the No. 48 team in the White House, we'd be hailing them as the best presidential administration ever.

But all that the Johnson regime inspires in NASCAR fans seems to be a lack of passion—a growing disinterest in the sport. Like the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, and the New York Yankees of many different and disparate eras, their eventual triumph is a foregone conclusion.

And in a sport where every race is a playoff, so to speak, that's not a good thing.

Truthfully, this is all The Chase's fault. NASCAR never needed playoffs; when you have everybody competing against one another every week, it's already a best-of-30 series between every team in the sport. Towards the end, somebody gets "eliminated" every week, even though they're still present on the track.

Johnson's domination of the Chase format is impressive, yes. But wouldn't it be far more impressive to see him making incredible comebacks every year? Right now, Johnson has a 103-point advantage over Mark Martin for the title, going into the final race of the season at Homestead.

Under the old format, that would only be an eight-point advantage over Tony Stewart.

And NASCAR claims that the Chase makes things more competitive.

Things went the same way in 2008, when the Chase spread Johnson and Carl Edwards out by an extra 85 points going into Homestead. Instead of a 141-point advantage, Johnson would have only had 56 over Cousin Carl.

And you know what? One of NASCAR's most affable drivers would have backflipped his way to becoming the first driver to win championships in NASCAR's top two series in the same year. The 16-point advantage would have fallen just short of the 1992 duel between Alan Kulwicki and Bill Elliott in terms of excitement. That year, the margin of victory was a mere 10 points.

With no Chase, Johnson would have maintained his 2006 championship, the most impressive of the bunch, but only by four points over Matt Kenseth. But 2007 would have gone to the rightful champion, Jeff Gordon, whose dominance (and 7.3 average finish) easily trumped his teammate.

And right now, we'd be asking if Gordon, who would be only 51 points back, could win a record-tying seventh championship. (He also would have won in 2004.)

The problem with Johnson is his lack of charisma, and everyone—from the higher-ups in NASCAR to my mother, who pin-pointed the problem while I was talking to her today—knows it.

If Jimmie Johnson was as polarizing as Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, or even Kyle Busch, the fans would be a lot more interested. But Johnson doesn't do anything statistically that Gordon never accomplished (or nearly accomplished—had he been a little better in 1996, he'd have four titles in a row), wreck people in the name of victory like Earnhardt, or piss people off like Shrub.

Fans watch the races hoping, more often than not in vain, that Johnson will make a mistake and fall out of the race. It doesn't happen, and that's the end of it. The championship is decided, we collectively sigh, and we move on to football.

The sport needs solutions to this problem, and regardless of what anybody says, it is a huge problem. What we have with Johnson is a driver who may be the greatest of all-time in taking advantage of fortuitous situations.

You know, in his entire Busch/Nationwide career, he only won one race? In that year, 2001, he was beaten in the points by Tony Raines. Think we'd be talking the same way about Tony Raines right now had Rick Hendrick picked him and not Johnson?

One answer is to "Jimmie-proof" the Chase, which the writers on NASCAR.com have discussed. While it would allow the sport to maintain its Chase format, it's unfair to mess with the entire schedule based on the strengths of one driver. Many of Johnson's best tracks just so happen to fall at the end of the year. Again, fortuitous situation.

The better solution, however, is to shoot the Chase to hell. Obviously, NASCAR won't do that, because it brings in more money in the short term—but when the fans stop watching because the championship is a foregone conclusion, they'll seriously reconsider. The past four years would have been a lot more interesting without it, and everyone who has looked at the statistics knows it.

Obviously, neither of those things are going to happen. So I venture one last suggestion out to the motorsports world, an idea which is so far-fetched, so desperate to give NASCAR a new champion, that it makes far more sense than anybody would ever be willing to admit. The side effects would be nothing but positives for not only NASCAR, but also motorsports around the world.

Go race for US F1, Jimmie.

Peter Windsor, are you listening?


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