So much of the argument and debate that fuel sports is generational, older fans hanging on to black-and-white memories and myths.
It is the good-old-days-were-best mind-set, even though, logically, especially in sports, advances in technology and physiology make pretty clear that today’s athletes are faster, stronger, better. The pull of nostalgia, though, insists Babe Ruth, 81 years after his last home run, was greater than any of today’s hitters will ever be. It is what argued Tiger Woods would never be Jack Nicklaus no matter what the final number of major wins might claim. It is the certainty of so many, beyond debate, that there will never be another Michael Jordan.
NASCAR racing confronts this grappling of then vs. now, and, for me, it is what makes so riveting Sunday’s season-ending Sprint Cup championship race down at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
All of the sport’s old ghosts are summoned. Stock car racing’s heritage is on alert. The old-timers are ready for an argument.
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Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano are racing for the 2016 crown on Sunday. The other of the final four, Jimmie Johnson, is racing for that and a little bit more. He is chasing the gods of his sport. Chasing history. Immortality.
Richard Petty, “The King,” won his first NASCAR main-series championship in 1964, during the font of Beatlemania, and collected his last and record seventh in 1979.
Dale Earnhardt, “The Intimidator,” reigned first in 1980, as if accepting the baton, and won his record-tying seventh crown in 1994.
Jimmie Johnson (conspicuously absent a decent nickname), won his six titles in a condensed flurry between 2006 and ’13 — including a record five in a row at Homestead — and now seeks his record-equaling seventh Sunday in the farmlands southwest of Miami.
What is in front of Johnson was the elephant in the room when the final four gathered this week for a prerace news conference, but was the last topic broached.
“I know it’s here. I know I’m as close as I’ve ever been,” he said. “I’m not climbing into that car Sunday saying, ‘I’ve got to win seven.’ But of course I would love to. It would be a massive honor to join Petty and Earnhardt. If not this year, we’ll be back next year to try again.”
I’m proud that Greater Miami has a tradition of major sporting events. This is the 15th year we have been the racing epicenter for NASCAR’s grand finale. Twenty national college football champions have been knighted here. We have hosted 10 Super Bowls. We’ve hosted NBA Finals, World Series and Stanley Cup Finals games.
But this would be a part of some of our biggest moments, if Johnson makes racing history Sunday.
Petty and Earnhardt epitomized the Deep South heritage of what NASCAR used to be, both speaking with a drawl that fell easy on the ears of race fans, including those old enough to remember the dirt tracks and moonshine-running of the sport’s birth days. Including those who wore “redneck” as a badge, not an insult.
The two racing deities grow up some 55 miles apart along I-85 in rural North Carolina, Petty in tiny Level Cross, Earnhardt in slightly bigger Kannapolis.
Johnson was born in El Cajon, California. He was a swimmer and diver in high school.
Petty, still going strong at 79, and Earnhardt, who of course died from race injuries on the track in Daytona in 2001 at 49 – only growing his myth and legend – fit the cherished NASCAR stereotype to perfection. Rugged, swashbuckling and profane when required, scowling behind shades under a cowboy hat.
Johnson, a still-boyish 41, looks like he could step out of a fire suit and into Armani and star in a GQ fashion shoot. He does not swashbuckle. He is known for excellence in a cramped cockpit at 180 mph, but hardly for a notable personality.
How will NASCAR fans welcome Johnson to the exclusive highest pantheon should he win Sunday? Will they at all?
I am picturing Petty and Earnhardt as a leathered Wyatt Earp and John Wayne at a card table as Johnson’s neatly groomed Urban Cowboy walks smiling through the bat-wing doors in a brand new Stetson that doesn’t quite fit him.
The funny thing is, Johnson doesn’t need a win Sunday for title No. 7 to build his argument for greatest ever. That would merely gild it, and force the Petty/Earnhardt wing to at least entertain the debate.
Johnson already has been the best in his sport at least seven times. Recall that in 2004 he won a NASCAR-best eight races but somehow finished second in final points, back before the Chase for the Cup format tinkered to the playoff-style setup and winner-take-all final four now in play.
NASCAR should secretly hope Johnson wins Sunday and makes history.
“It’d be a really big deal,” as Petty himself said in a recent interview. “It would be really good for NASCAR. Be good PR.”
It would good for a sport that needs the boost.
Television ratings have been in gradual decline much of the past 10 years. Attendance at tracks also has fallen, leading NASCAR in 2012 to stop giving out crowd numbers altogether. This is not to say the sport is unhealthy. A mammoth 10-year, $8.2 billion deal with NBC and Fox that runs through 2024 assures financial stability. But interest has eroded.
The retirement last year of popular icon Jeff Gordon won’t help. Now star Tony Stewart, cantankerous in the old-time spirit, runs his final race Sunday. And Dale Earnhardt Jr., steadfastly voted most popular driver each year in an homage to his late father, has neither failed nor lived up to this name, is 42 now, and missed much of this season with a concussion.
NASCAR needs new stars, a transfusion, a jolt. Johnson isn’t new, but his winning to make history Sunday would stake a claim that this sport’s best days, and best drivers, are not all in the past. It would also serve as a reminder:
While the sport misses Gordon, is about to miss Stewart and waits for a dominance by Junior that likely will never come, the face of the franchise — whether he wins Sunday or not, and like it or not — is Jimmie Johnson.