In my opinion

David J. Neal: Consistency is Jimmie Johnson’s calling card

 
 
NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson drives the car (48) during the NASCAR Nationwide Series Ford EcoBoost 300 practice Saturday, November 16, 2013 at Homestead-Miami Speedway
NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson drives the car (48) during the NASCAR Nationwide Series Ford EcoBoost 300 practice Saturday, November 16, 2013 at Homestead-Miami Speedway
ANDREW ULOZA / For the Miami Herald

dneal@MiamiHerald.com

Should Jimmie Johnson clinch another NASCAR Sprint Cup series title Sunday at the Ford EcoBoost 400, let’s throw a big, sexy celebration for that most beige of assets, consistency.

A Johnson championship — and he needs only to finish 23rd or better to do so — gives him six Sprint Cup titles in eight seasons. In one of the other seasons, 2012, he came to the Homestead finale as the only challenger within range of eventual champion Brad Keslowski.

The other season of those eight, 2011, he finished sixth. It’s the only time in his 12 seasons driving Sprint Cup that he ended the season outside the top five. This is the 10th year of the Chase for the Cup format. Johnson’s the only driver to make the Chase each year.

That borders on sorcery in modern NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.

Luck can run so capriciously. A bad lug nut or a $6 ball bearing can ruin your day. And there’s the competitiveness — in Richard Petty’s last championship season, 1979, the 31 races were won by nine different drivers. Johnson’s most recent championship season, 2010, saw 13 unique winners among the 36 races. Last year was 15 out of 36.

Racing has never been safer. The days of common fatalities have been gone so long. So much so, when seven-time Cup series champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in 2001, a twentysomething fan moaned into a TV camera, “Your heroes aren’t supposed to die.”

(That probably drew a bark of dark laughter from those who remember the deaths of great racing champions Bill Vukovich, Joe Weatherly, Fireball Roberts, Jim Clark, Bruce McLaren, posthumous Formula One world champion Jochen Rindt, Ayrton Senna, etc.)

Yet, still, for all racing’s safety, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti announced his retirement this week on advice of doctors after a recent wreck. NASCAR president Mike Helton said it’s a reminder that this is still a dangerous sport.

No kidding. Three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart has been out with a broken leg sustained in a sprint car accident. Denny Hamlin, who led the 2010 Chase when it came to Homestead, injured his back in March that took him out of contention for making the Chase.

“The way The Chase sets up today, you can’t make any mistakes and you can’t have any failures,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Johnson’s car. “We had an engine fail with [Dale] Earnhardt [Jr.] or he’d be up in the points. Luck of the draw that Jimmie didn’t get that motor.”

“I look at, again, how the guy breaks down the corners and how he studies what’s going on in the car. He never gets excited. He’s like a computer feeding stuff back to Chad and making the adjustments.”

As seven-time series champion Richard Petty said Friday, without a great car, you won’t win consistently. What Petty and Johnson don’t always get credit for is their role in helping the car be a great car.

The King would stand alone above Earnhardt with eight NASCAR big series titles but for his famous 1970 Rebel 400 roll, roll, roll your car crash at Darlington. Petty missed seven races, the only races in his career he would miss because of injury. That allowed Bobby Isaac to take the title despite Petty winning seven more races and averaging 86.2 points per start against Isaac’s 83.2 points per start.

Put in baseball terms, if Petty fits as NASCAR’s Babe Ruth, Earnhardt would be Mickey Mantle. Johnson? Hank Aaron. Rarely spectacular, amazingly consistent, year after year until the one highlight moment that always jumps to mind — cracking career home run No. 715 to pass Ruth’s record.

(One of my all-time favorite numbers moments: No. 44, hit that home run in the fourth inning of the fourth game of the 1974 season in April, the fourth month. Four runs had been scored in the game previously.)

“Richard Petty” conjures images of No. 43 outracing A.J. Foyt and Darrell Waltrip to the checkered flag in the landmark 1979 Daytona 500; winning the Firecracker 400 for win No. 200 in a July 4 race after President Ronald Reagan gave the engine start order from an arriving helicopter; or losing the almost cartoonishly wild 1976 Daytona 500 finish to David Pearson.

“Dale Earnhardt” calls up his long-awaited Daytona 500 win in 1998 and all the other crews lining up to salute him as Earnhardt rolled down pit lane; or maybe the 1987 Winston when he kept control of the car in the grass after Bill Elliott tried to spin him, didn’t lose the lead and went on to win.

“Jimmie Johnson?” The perennial closing out of the competition. Being there every year. Consistency.

“The first thing you want to do is you want to compare Jimmie to a driver that preceded him based on statistics or what have you,” Helton said. “The fact of the matter though is I think the definition of Jimmie Johnson as a driver is yet to be determined. But certainly every season he participates adds to that definition.”

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