Sunday, March 21, 2010

Hate Him Or Not, Johnson Is One Of The All-Time Greats

Jimmie Johnson did it again Sunday, lurking in the shadows for much of the day while others dominated the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, then slicing his way through the field when the chips were down to claim his third checkered flag in five starts this season.

Sunday’s win was the first of Johnson’s career at Thunder Valley; a track where his best finish in 16 prior starts had been third. He and crewchief Chad Knaus circled the race in red before the 2010 campaign began, and crossing another track off his personal hit list clearly had Johnson pumped-up in Victory Lane.

"It's about time," he said. "We’ve been off here over the years, but we focused on what we had to do and overcame it."

While Johnson, Knaus and company high-fived in Victory Lane, portions of the NASCAR garage and much of the grandstands were left fuming. "I'd rather lose to any of the other 41 cars out there than the 48 car," said Kurt Busch, who led 278 of 500 laps Sunday before Johnson once again motored away to victory when it mattered most. "I thought we had him beat. I gave it my heart today, but we came up short."

“We’ve been able to get in some guys’ heads, and that’s been helpful,” admitted a grinning Johnson when told of Busch’s comments. He then added a warning to the rest of the competition, saying, “When we're winning at tracks that we're not supposed to (win at), boys better look out. Even that #2 car (Busch) that doesn't want the 48 to win."

Johnson has now won at all but five NASCAR Sprint Cup venues; Michigan, Chicago, Homestead, Watkins Glen & Infineon. He also became only the 12th driver in NASCAR history to win 50 career races. Three of the previous 11 drivers are headed to the NASCAR Hall Of Fame as members of its inaugural class. Six others were Class of 2009 HOF nominees and the other two – Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace – are sure bets for the Hall at some point in the not-too-distant future. Only three men have ever reached the illustrious 50-win plateau faster; Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson and Gordon.

Some people clearly don’t want to hear it, but the facts speak for themselves. Jimmie Johnson can hang up his helmet tomorrow and beat most of those all-time greats to the Hall Of Fame

If his career ends now -- without a single additional win -- the Lowe’s Chevrolet driver should be a first ballot Hall Of Famer. His 50 career Cup wins tie him for tenth place on the all-time list with NASCAR legends Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson. His four championships trail only Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, who earned seven. Gordon also has four, but Johnson won his four titles consecutively; something that had never, ever been done.

By any yardstick you care to use, Jimmie Johnson is the best in the world at what he does, and maybe the best ever. Unfortunately, it gets him nothing but a ration of flak from the fans and snappish, green-eyed envy from his colleagues in the garage.

Sadly, excellence is no longer something to be applauded, envied or emulated. We no longer encourage our children to win, having abandoned that archaic practice decades ago. Instead, we award trophies for participation and pretend not to keep score. And when someone like Jimmie Johnson bucks the trend by aspiring to something more than mediocrity, we shout him down for winning more than his share and upsetting our cozy little “nobody wins, nobody loses” view of the world.

"Look at the stats, look at the talent and look at the dedication,” said team owner Rick Hendrick of his lead driver at Bristol. “Just look at his record. I don't understand why it's not written (that) he's one of the best that's ever done this. I've been around for a long time, (and) I've watched a lot of guys from Richard Petty on up to current day.

"When you look at the level of competition since he's been in the sport, what he's done (and) what he's accomplished, I mean… I don't know what he's got to do."

While Hendrick fumed about the lack of respect afforded his four-time champion, Johnson seemed to revel in it. Asked about the “'Anyone But Jimmie” mentality that threatens to take NASCAR Nation by storm these days, the Lowe’s Chevrolet driver said, "It's awesome. People used to say `Anybody but the #3, anybody but the #24.’ I'm proud to be in that category"

Up next for Johnson? Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, where he's won five of the last seven races.

Get used to it, folks. Jimmie’s not going anywhere.

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