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The Way It Is/ Jimmie Johnson states his case as America's next great driver

by Gordon Kirby
Jimmie Johnson proved unequivocally this year that he is NASCAR's best racer today. In company with Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon, the 32-year old Johnson has been the man to beat this year and simply blew everyone away over the ten races comprising NASCAR's Chase for the Cup. With ten wins in all this year, including four in a row over the final rounds of the Chase, Johnson thoroughly deserved his second consecutive championship. After winning his fourth race on the trot at Phoenix last week with one round still to go even his stablemate Gordon had to concede defeat.

Some people point out that without the Chase for the Cup format, Gordon would have handily out-pointed Johnson to the championship and would also have done the same in 2004 versus Kurt Busch. That may be true, but it's interesting that, this year at least, it would only be a result of Gordon having a better record of sixth through tenth place finishes. In other words, Gordon would have won the title under the old system more from consistency than pure performance. So maybe the Chase isn't so bad after all.

There's no question that Rick Hendrick's team provides its four drivers with the best equipment available. Between Johnson, Gordon, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears, Hendrick Chevrolets won eighteen of this year's thirty-six Cup races and the team clearly did a better job than any other in coming to grips with the boxy and unattractive Car of Tomorrow.

For his part, Johnson repeatedly showed that, in partnership with crew chief Chad Knaus, he's the class of the field at diagnosing and dialing-in his car for the critical closing stages of any race. Time and again, he and teammate Gordon were there at the end, ready to run to the front. Johnson, in particular, is able to do it cleanly and forcefully, out-driving and out-racing most everyone most of the time.

Johnson has won thirty-three of the 219 Cup races he's started for Hendrick over the past six years. That's a win record of 15.1% compared to Gordon's slightly better record of 16.2% from eighty-one wins in 509 starts over fifteen seasons. It will be interesting to see how Johnson stacks up over time compared to four-time champion Gordon. As I've said in this space, Gordon's record marks him as the only great driver racing in America today, and Johnson probably is the only other contemporary NASCAR driver who has the chance to equal Gordon's achievements.

It was a surprise to see Clint Bowyer emerge as the best of the rest. In only his second full Cup season with Richard Childress's Chevrolet team the 28-year old Bowyer showed himself to be a strong racer on all types of tracks. He won three races, topping Childress's much more experienced drivers, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton, and was the only guy able to keep Johnson and Gordon in sight over the course of the Chase. Each of Burton and Harvick managed to win one race and finished eighth and tenth in championship points.

The top Ford team by far was Roush-Fenway's four-car operation which won seven races with Carl Edwards (3), Matt Kenseth (2), Greg Biffle (1) and Jamie McMurray (1). Kenseth and Edwards were frontrunners in many races and finished fourth and ninth in points. Biffle was very strong in some races, McMurray less so.

Joe Gibbs' Chevy team seemed to fade in the final stretch this year. Team leader Tony Stewart won three races but by his own admissions was a disappointment in the Chase. Denny Hamlin was quick in many races but won only once. J.J. Yeley did not come close to winning any races and will be replaced next year by Kyle Busch. The team also switches to Toyota next year, the first top team to make the move.

Dale Earnhardt Inc's trio of Chevrolets brought home only one win in '07 and that was with Martin Truex who handily outperformed Dale Earnhardt Jr in many races. Truex emerged this year as DEI's new team leader while Dale Jr's final year with the family team was disappointing with no wins. He's gone sixty-two Cup races without a win and hopes to turn his frustrating career around with his move to Hendrick's superteam. Over the next few years, we'll finally discover whether 'Little E' is a champion race car driver or just a superb marketing commodity.

Penske Racing's Dodges enjoyed some good Cup races in '07. Kurt Busch won twice and Ryan Newman was often competitive, but overall the results were disappointing. Sam Hornish makes Penske a three-car team next year.

The Chip Ganassi/Felix Sabates Dodges also enjoyed an up and down year. Juan Pablo Montoya was a convincing rookie of the year and scored one win on the Infineon Raceway road course. JPM proved to be a feisty racer, as expected, and seems to have earned the respect of many people, if not everyone in NASCAR. Reed Sorenson continues with the team next year while Dario Franchitti replaces David Stremme for his rookie Cup season.

Conspicuous for its lack of success this year was the factory Dodge/Gillett-Evernham team. Neither of Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler or Scott Riggs looked good in many races and former boy-wonder Kahne needs to step up and start performing or risk becoming a mere marketing personality a la Michael Waltrip. Patrick Carpentier replaced Riggs in this year's final races.

And the old guard is barely hanging on. The Pettys, Woods Bros and Robert Yates are marginal players these days. Yates has merged with Roush-Fenway and the Pettys are moving from Level Cross to Yates' old place in Mooresville as these teams try to turn around their flagging fortunes.

As far as the Car of Tomorrow is concerned, any regular reader knows I'm from the camp who thinks the new Cup car is an ugly, unattractive spec car. I think it's a step backwards aesthetically and technically. The CoT handles poorly running on its own and in traffic because of its high center of gravity and lack of downforce. The car's high CG means it rolls more and also is harder to stop while the boxy shape makes four hundred pounds less downforce than the old Cup car so that it's less secure, less-balanced and not as good in traffic. Thus far, the CoT certainly seems more robust in collisions than the old car but it remains to be seen whether or not the car is a real step forward in safety, as claimed.

Then there's Bruton Smith who's bought my local track, New Hampshire International Speedway, from Bob Bahre for $340 million. Octogenarian Smith now owns seven NASCAR tracks and his clout and influence in stock car racing has never been bigger. Smith built Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960 in partnership with driver Curtis Turner and was 'Big Bill' France's only major rival as a track owner and promoter. Today, Smith continues to rival Bill Sr's grandson Brian France as stock car racing's most powerful man.

In New Hampshire, the track will be renamed the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, like SMI's other tracks, and there's lots of angst about Smith's takeover. Many people believe Smith will take one of New Hampshire's two Cup dates either to Las Vegas or one of his other tracks. Following some stories to this effect in the local newspapers, the governor was quick to declare that he's ready to reach out to Smith to guarantee that New Hampshire retains both its Cup weekends which bring more than $100 million to the state each year.

This year also witnessed a skein of open-wheel drivers suddenly gravitating to NASCAR. Who would ever have imagined that winning the Indy 500 or an Indy car championship, or F1 races or a World Championship, would be mere stepping stones to NASCAR? Forty years ago, back in the great days of American racing, guys like A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney dabbled occasionally in NASCAR, comprehensively blowing-off the stock car regulars in their rare visits from F1 or Indy car racing. Times most certainly have changed!

Montoya has shown plenty of speed and a feisty character and most people in NASCAR have tipped their caps at how well he did in his rookie Cup season. But Juan still has some way to go before he's a regular contender and front-runner. It'll be interesting to see if Montoya can make next year's Chase for the Cup.

As far as the rest of them, you couldn't have written a more desperate B-movie script about how poorly they've done so far. A.J. Allmendinger took on the worst possible challenge by going into NASCAR with a new team run by a foreigner which made for a long string of DNQs and a difficult rookie season. It took Sam Hornish seven tries before he finally qualified for a Cup race in one of Penske's Dodges. Hornish's tail-out driving style doesn't appear to adapt well to Cup cars and it will be interesting to see how he progresses with his full commitment to NASCAR next year.

Then there's Jacques Villeneuve who has crashed in almost every NASCAR race he's started so far and is beginning to look like a bit of a sad case. I have to ask, what did Jacques expect, going into stock car racing with Bill Davis Racing? When he broke into CART thirteen years ago Jacques was with one of the best teams in the business in Forsythe-Green Racing and when he jumped to Formula 1 two years later he was again with one of the best teams of the time and clearly had the best car in the Williams-Renault from those days.

Villeneuve's early success came through very keen career planning by manager Craig Pollock, but I'm afraid to say his move to NASCAR looks a bit desperate as well as ill-informed. Maybe Jacques and Pollock will prove me wrong and will wind up owning Davis's team and enjoy being one of Toyota's bedrock NASCAR operations.

Dario Franchitti's NASCAR hazing hasn't gone as poorly as Villeneuve's but he has yet to make anyone stand up and take notice. Again, it will be interesting to see how Dario's rookie Cup season goes. But let's not forget that Franchitti too was blessed to be with some of the best teams in both CART and IRL. Ganassi's Cup team is a good team, but not yet one of the best, and I have to wonder how Dario's elegant driving style will adapt to the framing' and slamming' that is essential to stock car racing.

Patrick Carpentier's NASCAR adventure should be helped by Gillett-Evernham Racing's new technical director Ian Watt. A Scotsman who worked with Carpentier in the IRL at Cheever Racing, Watt understands Carpentier and knows what he wants or needs from a car. Patrick is a very even-tempered fellow and may prove to be more capable than any of them at making the switch.

And then of course there's Scott Speed who's gone from Formula 1 to ARCA, an historical first! Speed may think he had a tough time in F1 but in stock car racing I fear he faces a very long road.

Meanwhile, NASCAR is having to deal with changing times and a new set of problems. Growth in ticket sales and TV ratings peaked two or three years ago and this year the TV ratings were down substantially for the Chase. In fact, this year's ratings overall were down 9% from last year and 21% less than in 2005. At the same time many tracks are no longer selling out and there's lots of grumbling in some quarters that with the arrival of Toyota and the open-wheel drivers NASCAR is getting further and further away from its roots.

Yet NASCAR will continue its dominant role in American racing for many years to come because of the strength of its grass roots series and championships which continue to build a solid base of competitors, tracks, fans, media and sponsors. And don't forget NASCAR Canada. NASCAR made a solid move into Canada this year and is poised to steadily develop its position across the great white north to the further detriment of open-wheel racing.

The fact is, if CART had done its job many years ago instead of falling foul to power struggles, greed and many colossally poor management decisions, the likes of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Casey Mears today would be Indy car stars. Montoya and Villeneuve would have returned to Indy car racing after their tenures in F1 rather than going off to NASCAR and Franchitti, Carpentier and Allmendinger would be loving life at the top of their games in open-wheel racing. But decades of ineptitude by the SCCA, USAC, IMSA, CART/Champ Car and IRL, handed the ballgame, lock, stock and barrel, to NASCAR.

It's not something any of those who had their fingers in the mess can be proud of.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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