Four Timer: Why Jimmie Johnson Is NASCAR's Best Driver of the Decade

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IDecember 13, 2009

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 22:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, poses with all four of his championship trophies after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22, 2009 in Homestead, Florida. Johnson becomes the first driver in the history of NASCAR to win four consecutive championships since the sports inception in 1949.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

In a decade that has produced the likes of Kevin Harvick, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards, none of those drivers come close to the amazing talents and drive of four-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

Sure, Harvick won the 2007 Daytona 500. Other than some wins sporadically placed throughout the decade, his team has simply not been able to match the quality of Hendrick Motorsports.

Yes, Kurt Busch took home the 2004 Chase for the Sprint Cup title in his penultimate year with Jack Roush, and younger brother Kyle has been the Lady Gaga-like figure of the sport. However, the two siblings have a bit of baggage with them as far as their attitudes are concerned.

Hamlin has been knocking on the door for a title, confidently stating that he is the man to end the Johnson Era of NASCAR.  He has a point, having been a part of the Chase in every full season he has competed in during his four-season career.

But there are times when the 29-year old experiences either misfortune (aka Brad Keselowski) or impatience costs the aggressive Virginian with some races as well as his true shot in dethroning this decade's master of stock car racing.

If Tom Brady was one of the NFL's surprising yet prolific icons (considering the story of the New England Patriots from 2000-present), Johnson's journey to the top of the Sprint Cup scene could almost be played out in similar fashion.

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After all, who would have thought that this virtual stranger to this sport would actually conclude the 2000s as one of the most discussed and popular drivers of this transitional decade?

Brady was supposed to merely be a second- or third-string quarterback, observing the franchise's investment and leader Drew Bledsoe on the field. Then the New York Jets' Mo Lewis happened and you know the rest of that story.

In the world of Cup racing, this was supposed to be the period in which Jeff Gordon would peak into his potential, dominating these years with a few stout challenges by Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Instead, it was Gordon's once-apprentice, who cut his teeth in off-road and minor-league stock car racing, that has risen to the top of the NASCAR hierarchy as possibly one of the best drivers of all-time.

Prior to his signing at Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson's claim to racing infamy was his 2000 accident in Watkins Glen during a Nationwide Series event, when his No. 92 Chevrolet crashed head-on into the first-corner tire barrier.

While it appeared to be a devastating accident, nearly seconds after the impact, the El Cajon, Calif., native climbed out of his battered machine in one piece, celebrating jubilantly in front of the masses.

Aside from his sole Nationwide victory a year later at Chicagoland Speedway, nary a race observer put their money or thought into Johnson amounting to anything beyond a dependable run-in driver.

Little did those insiders realize that the unassuming '98 American Speed Association Rookie of the Year approached Gordon during a driver's meeting at Michigan in August 2000 to discuss his options in the immediate future.

Although that story has been repeated as nearly many times as the amount of Cup victories Johnson has obtained since his rookie campaign of 2002, it's perhaps the pivotal moment that opened up the door of opportunity for the now 34-year-old sensation.

What exactly did Jeff Gordon see in Johnson that has obviously paid off in a successful investment and career for the Golden State hero?

Perhaps Gordon recognized a bit of himself with the then 25-year-old driver who just needed the equipment to support his extraordinary talent. After all, it was Gordon who proved that equation true when he was signed to Rick Hendrick's multi-car operation in 1992.

While Hendrick's team was not exactly the powerhouse team in 1992 as it has been since 1995, the idea of a great, but relative outsider to the sport driving top-quality machines seemed to make sense.

That driver would be willing to push those cars its maximum, fearlessly negotiating each corner and straight with precision and cunning abilities. Gordon was that kind of driver during his rookie campaign in '93, and still displays some of that cutting edge driving style on any given race day.

But it has been Johnson who has overshadowed and outshined his mentor, leaving Gordon and any fellow competitor in wonder as to how week-after-week, the No. 48 comes up on top.

During its first years in the sport, the No. 48 Lowe's team gained a reputation as great closers in races. Usually, Johnson struggled during the start of an event with the car's handling.

A few hours later, the blue and silver machine suddenly worked its way up to the lead pack, challenging for wins or a top-ten spot.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, who is either the second coming of Ray Evernham or the greatest "innovator" since Smokey Yunick, has perfected the art of poker, Sprint Cup style.

Known to interpret the rulebook "differently" than his peers in the garage area, Knaus' leadership and ethics are partly why the Johnson Express continue to steamroll its way into NASCAR history.

Not since Evernham has the sport witnessed a leader who continually looks for ways to perfect their performances on the track, whether it's finding ways to hone their cars' aerodynamics to race strategy that sets them up for victories.

Knaus' chemistry with Johnson is about the best in the business, working along the boundaries of friendship and professionalism that keeps their efforts strong and effective.

Then there's the pit crew, who reels off lightning-fast stops that have consistently gained Johnson positions on the racetrack. Those translate into great finishes or even better, victories.

Come to think of it, if one had to come up with the reasons why Johnson, Knaus and the whole No. 48 team remains atop the NASCAR world, all they'd have to do is just watch any race during their championship seasons of 2006-'09.

Whether they came home defeated or in Victory Lane, their efforts as a collective are why they've been a constant threat and champion for the past three years.

Make no mistake about it: come 2010 and beyond, the man and team that will have a proverbial bulls-eye on its back is none other than the same team that has basically owned the 2000s.

Nary a challenge has been encountered in which Johnson and Company failed, and look for the No. 48 team to keep on winning, much to the pleasure or chagrin of racing fans around the world.

If Knaus is suspended for a rules violation, the team simply rises to the occasion and comes home with a victory or a great finish, aka the first four races of the 2006 season.

Poor qualifying effort? No problem, they'll just reel in a top-10 after a three-hour contest or a victory such as the case in the 2003 Coca-Cola 600.

A dull personality? Well, if you say so, because he's pretty exciting to watch in every race, pickpocketing his way to the front or dominating events like the greats before him, including Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, and Jeff Gordon.

No matter what obstacles are presented before this resilient group, chances are, they'll prove time and time again why they're the best in this sport.

Whether you like it or not, these will be in the history books as one of the most dominating and superior performances of any driver in the sport's 61 years of operation.


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