In my opinion

Greg Cote: Jimmie Johnson destined to be ‘The Best Ever’

 

With his sixth Sprint Cup Championship, California-cool Jimmie Johnson is on the bumpers of The King and The Intimidator.

 
Denny Hamlin celebrates his victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 race Sunday, Nov.17, 2013 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead.
Denny Hamlin celebrates his victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 race Sunday, Nov.17, 2013 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead.
ANDREW ULOZA / FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

gcote@MiamiHerald.com

NASCAR gravity pulls hard. Not to the oldest days of moonshine and Confederate flags, thankfully, but still to its Deep South roots. And so the culture shock that is coming may take a bit more time to absorb and might never be fully accepted, but make no mistake, change is ahead if it isn’t already here.

The very top of this sport’s history will belong to Jimmie Johnson someday soon — an eventuality that felt an awful lot like a certainty Sunday evening down at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Old School race fans going back generations had better be prepared.

The revered ghost of The Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, will step aside.

So will the living legend they call the King, Richard Petty.

The small message every driver has seen comes to mind: “Warning. Objects in Rear-View Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.”

Racing’s two Southern icons will soon enough make room for the outsider, the guy with the GQ looks from California, the modern-day dominator who doesn’t possess a great nickname like Petty or Earnhardt but seems destined to soon answer to this one:

The Best Ever.

Johnson won his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup season championship Sunday to overshadow race winner Denny Hamlin and, more important, to pull right up to the bumpers of Petty and Earnhardt. To get ever closer in that rear-view mirror.

Both legends still share the all-time lead with seven season crowns, but it took Petty 16 years and Earnhardt 15 years to go from their first NASCAR title to their seventh. It has taken Johnson only eight seasons to go from his first to his sixth in his No. 48 Chevrolet. Nobody had ever won five in a row like he did in 2006-10. Now, after two years generously allowing others to borrow his trophy, he has reclaimed what is his.

Jimmie just turned 38, by the way.

He ain’t done yet. Not close.

His excellence and ruthless consistency make it seem inevitable he’ll pass Petty and Earnhardt on racing’s ultimate victory lane. Bear in mind Johnson also has had two second-place season finishes and also nearly won last year’s crown. He very easily could have been racing for his record-tying seventh title on Sunday.

The King himself seems ready to abdicate.

“He’s liable to go eight to 10,” Petty estimated Johnson’s eventual hardware.

Hamlin, Sunday’s race winner, put well the frustration for Johnson’s contemporaries to be stuck on his historic timeline.

“Unfortunately, we’re racing in the Jimmie Johnson era. I can say I think he’s the greatest there ever was, racing against the best competition the sport has ever seen,” Hamlin said. “The 48, they just never have a bad race. They don’t make mistakes.”

Former quarterback Donovan McNabb said recently he doesn’t consider Johnson an athlete. Somebody give Donovan a Breathalyzer. Johnson is a triathlete who runs half-marathons, snowboards, rides dirt bikes. He has introduced health, fitness and training to NASCAR in much the same way Tiger Woods did in golf.

Oh, and he drives a car 180 mph in heavy traffic for three hours, risking death.

“Yes, I’m an athlete,” Johnson said Sunday, grinning.

Johnson is the best kind of athlete.

The one who dominates.

Said Sunday’s race and season runnerup Matt Kenseth: “We’ve never seen anything like this in the sport and never will again.”

Johnson may never be as beloved as Petty or especially Earnhardt, whose racing-related death only grew his legend. And Johnson may never have the aura of the only two men he is chasing (and gaining on). Theirs were larger-than-life, caricature personas.

But respect for Johnson and what he is doing must come now, and in full.

Simply put, it is harder to win now than in the time of Petty and Earnhardt. Depth of competition is greater. NASCAR averages 14 different winners per season now, vs. 12 in Earnhardt’s era and 10 in Petty’s. There are 43 cars in a race now, more than before. There are 36 races in a season now; prior to the 1970s there were twice that many.

Johnson characteristically demurred Sunday on all the place-in-history talk, calling the conversation “a huge honor,” but saying, “I think we need to save the argument ‘til I hang up the helmet.”

No. Of course, we don’t.

And the one driver with the most intimate opinion on the matter knows it, too.

“There is no doubt you can’t but put him in that conservation,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said of Johnson’s place with his father and Petty.

The six-time champ’s team owner Rick Hendrick said of his star driver: “I like to use the {Bill] Parcells quote, ‘You are what your record says you are.’”

The wonder of Johnson isn’t just the ultimate hardware (times six). His 66 race wins since his first in 2002 are 30 more than anybody else in that time. (Tony Stewart is next with 36, barely half as many).

Johnson’s dominance is such that it begs comparing with other greats in other sports. Think of the Heat’s LeBron James, Roger Federer in tennis, slugger Miguel Cabrera, swimmer Michael Phelps, Tiger Woods – anybody, any sport.

You’d better make room for Jimmie Johnson.

As an aside, this was the 12th year NASCAR has ended its season at Homestead – one of South Florida’s annual jewel events drawing some 70,000 fans – and the first race since the death of the track’s visionary and founder, Ralph Sanchez, whose family attended the race.

I was reminded of that as Johnson got emotional about his own family after the race, his voice wavering as he thanked his wife Chandra for her support. Their daughter, Genevieve, 3, sat in the crook of her daddy’s right arm.

“My grandmother passed away one month ago, and I’m without grandparents now, which is a sad thing,” Johnson said. “I know there was an angel, maybe four angels, riding on this car. They were so proud of what I’m chasing.”

What he is chasing is racing history.

And he’s gaining on it. Fast.

Read more Greg Cote stories from the Miami Herald

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