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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Johnson joins the legends of NASCAR

by Gordon Kirby
Through the first twenty-four races of NASCAR's Sprint Cup championship defending champion Jimmie Johnson won only twice at Phoenix in April and Indianapolis in August. Over the summer Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards dominated the headlines and many people reckoned Johnson was out of the championship hunt. But come the start of fall Johnson reminded everyone why he had won two straight championships in 2006 and '07.

Driving for Rick Hendrick's four-car Chevrolet team as he has since he started his Cup career in 2001, Johnson won two of the last three races prior to the start of the Chase for the Cup, then fought for the lead of the opening three Chase races. Johnson jumped to the front of the points race and asserted himself with a dominant victory at Martinsville in the middle of October followed by a great comeback drive to finish second to Edwards at Atlanta the next weekend and a dominant win from the pole at Phoenix two weeks later. Johnson won the fall race in Arizona for the third year in a row and wrapped-up the championship at Homestead last weekend with a clean run to fifteenth place.

As he becomes the first man to win three consecutive NASCAR championships since Cale Yarborough turned the trick thirty years ago Johnson has arrived in legendary company. Yarborough won his trio of titles in 1976, '77 and '78 driving Junior Johnson's Chevrolets. NASCAR's other (non-consecutive) three-time champions are Lee Petty, David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip. Of course, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt each won seven NASCAR championships while Jeff Gordon is ranked third with four titles ahead of three-time champions Lee Petty, Pearson, Yarborough, Waltrip and Johnson.

Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus enjoy a close and tremendously fruitful working relationship, essential to success in any form of racing, NASCAR in particular. But in the end it's Johnson who makes the difference. The guy is cool, analytical and relentless with a keen ability to get the best from his car at the end of a race. He's also a very clean and tidy driver who rarely, if ever, gets involved in fender-banging episodes or vendettas. Johnson is a gentleman racer like his hero Rick Mears and for that he deserves praise and respect.

Over the course of the year many people asked what happened to Johnson's teammate Jeff Gordon. The four-time Cup champion went without a win this year for the first time since his rookie season and finished seventh in Sprint Cup points. Gordon is now 37 and has been racing Cup cars for sixteen years. He's happily married for a second time and is also a first-time proud father and many people say he's lost the thirst to make the moves required to win races and championships. Others blame his crew chief Steve Letarte who's been showered with endless criticism this year by many Gordon fans.

It's difficult to say if any or all of these factors are the culprits but it has to be said that a new generation of younger drivers has arrived in the shape of Johnson, Edwards and Busch who have the same level of equipment as Gordon. He's hardly washed-up, but it's a fact of sporting life that younger generations inevitably push aside the established stars a little quicker than we expect.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. joined Hendrick's four-car team this year. Earnhardt may not have enjoyed the kind of season his fans hoped for but he was very competitive in many races and appeared to enjoy himself much more this year than during his last few years with the family team. Casey Mears drove Hendrick's fourth car the past two years but has moved to Richard Childress for '09. Mears will be replaced by veteran Mark Martin.

Only four teams--Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Roush Fenway and Richard Childress--qualified for the twelve places in the Chase. Three of Hendrick's four drivers made it--Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt--plus all three Joe Gibbs Toyotas (Busch, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin), three of Roush Fenway's five Fords (Edwards, Biffle and Matt Kenseth) and all three Richard Childress Chevrolets driven by Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer. A dozen more teams ran all the races but failed to make the play-off over the year's last ten races.

Through the final half-dozen races Johnson's biggest challengers were the Roush Fenway Fords driven by Edwards and Biffle. Edwards developed a bit of a rivalry with Kyle Busch during the summer, winning three races in August, while Biffle broke a year-long winless streak at exactly the right moment when he won the opening two rounds of the Chase in September. Jack Roush's operation won the championship with Matt Kenseth in 2003 and Kurt Busch in '04 and is Ford's only front-running team these days.

Edwards, 29, has been racing Cup cars for five years, all with Roush. He won last year's Nationwide championship and has established himself as one of the fastest, most aggressive drivers in NASCAR. Edwards is also a pretty clean driver, not quite in Johnson's class perhaps, but very close. He did all he could at Homestead, winning the season-closer and leading the most laps as he took a series high nine victories. Edwards also continued to race regularly in the Nationwide series where he also won nine races and finished a close second in the championship to Clint Bowyer.

As I've documented at some length in this space Toyota's march to success in NASCAR seems to be inevitable and in mid-summer Kyle Busch looked a likely champion. But the Busch/Gibbs/Toyota combination stumbled badly in September in the opening three races of the Chase for the Cup. Busch had mechanical problems in all three races, two of the them engine-related, and tumbled to twelfth and last of the players in the Chase's play-off format. He never recovered, nor did he contend for wins in any of the year's final races. But Busch is a confident fellow and must have learned some important lessons this year. He should be an increasingly serious championship contender in the years ahead.

Not a single Dodge team made the Chase, including Roger Penske's and Chip Ganassi's NASCAR teams. At the start of the season Penske won his first Daytona 500 with Ryan Newman but the rest of the year was all downhill as Newman and teammates Kurt Busch and Sam Hornish never came close to winning again, except for Busch taking a rain-shortened strategic win at New Hampshire in September.

After eight years with Penske, Newman decided to join his pal Tony Stewart in a new Chevrolet-funded and equipped venture called Stewart/Haas Racing. Stewart leaves Joe Gibbs after ten years to become a part-owner and team leader of the former Haas/CNC team, a long-running backfield operation he hopes to transform into a front-runner.

Also among the conspicuously unsuccessful this year was Kasey Kahne with Gillett Evernham's three-car Dodge team and Dale Earnhardt Inc's trio of Chevrolets led by Martin Truex Jr. Kahne was quick in some races and was able to win twice in the spring, but he was a non-entity in many races and failed to qualify for the Chase. None of Gillett Evernham's Dodges qualified for the Chase, nor did any of DEI's Chevies.

A flock of open-wheel drivers alighted in NASCAR in 2007 and '08, led by former Williams and McLaren F1 star Juan-Pablo Montoya. Montoya enjoyed an encouraging rookie season in '07 with Chip Ganassi's team, but over the course of '08 reality began to set in. Juan was competitive in some races but a mid-fielder most of the time. He finished twenty-fourth in points.

Joining Montoya in NASCAR this year were 2007 Indy 500 winner and IRL champ Dario Franchitti, 2006 Indy 500 winner and three-time IRL champ Sam Hornish, and former open-wheel racers Patrick Carpentier, Michael McDowell and A.J. Allmendinger, the latter in his second year. But none of them was able to produce any consistent results and most of the time they struggled among the backmarkers.

Franchitti lost his ride with Ganassi's three-car NASCAR team in the middle of the summer and wound-up returning to Indy car racing before the year was out. Carpentier and Allmendinger also lost their seats before the end of the season. Allmendinger took over Carpentier's Gillett Evernham Dodge for the last five races and ran pretty well, much better than he had aboard Red Bull's Toyota. Scott Speed replaced Allmendinger at Red Bull and discovered he has a lot to learn.

After decades of untrammelled growth and boastful sell-outs NASCAR's upward curve has flattened over the last three years. Many people in the organization spent this year wondering how to reverse the tide but matters were made worse by September's Wall Street meltdown and the ensuing gobal financial crisis which exacerbated the deep problems confronting the American automobile industry. As Detroit's Big Three plead for a federal bailout many NASCAR teams face serious budget cuts for next year and for the first time in many years there are worries about car counts.

Last week DEI and Chip Ganassi announced a merger resulting in a net loss to NASCAR of one car. The merged team, known as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, will run four cars next year and around 100 jobs have been lost to the merger. And in an attempt to reduce costs NASCAR has banned testing at any tracks that host Cup, Nationwide or Truck series races. Like most well-intentioned rule changes this will probably result in the bigger, better-funded teams gaining another advantage by doing plenty of testing at other tracks.

NASCAR fans are also taking on board the sobering truth that it took Toyota only one year to get to the front of NASCAR's Sprint Cup series--much quicker than expected. Toyota has raced successfully in the United States for more than twenty-five years, winning championships in off-road racing, IMSA GT and GTP, and in CART with Newman/Haas in 2002 and the Indy 500 with Penske Racing in 2003. Again, its push to dominate NASCAR may be irresistable, particularly with Detroit's deep troubles.

Yet NASCAR's biggest conundrum may be about the drive for profit. Its separate, but joined-at-the-hip, track-owning company known as the International Speedway Corporation (ISC) is publicly-traded and thus dedicated to achieving eternal growth and profits. The other big player in NASCAR is Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports which is in exactly the same situation. But NASCAR, ISC and SMI have entered new phases in recent years of no growth, if not a decline in revenue. NASCAR's goal these days is simply to maintain and for any company driven by shareholder value that is a less than optimum situation. The next few years will be tough going for sure.

Amid these changing times NASCAR's biggest strength probably is its well-established ladder system and its fleet of young talent led by Johnson, Edwards and Busch. Despite its many problems NASCAR still has much more commercial and pulling power than any other form of American racing.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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