Monday, November 18, 2013

The Least Legendary Legend of All Time

In the run up to the event--and in the moment it was happening--ESPN tried to promote Jimmie Johnson's 6th NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship as moving him into a position of joining the "Legends" of the sport.  Specifically, the promos featured NASCAR's only seven-time series champions: Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr.  While winning six season championships is certainly one heck of an achievement--few, if any, race fans would put Johnson in the same category as Petty and Earnhardt.

For starters, Johnson's driving style is in a word: Boring.  Even the most hard-core JJ fan would be hard-pressed to tell you what was his most exciting victory.  Or what was his most thrilling pass for the lead.  Or even what was his most spectacular crash.  Richard Petty won the Daytona 500 one year crashing at the finish line.  In his final victory at Talledaga, Dale Earnhardt came back from 21st place--ON THE LAST LAP!!  Those two were known as "drivers"--pushing the limits of their vehicles--sometimes beyond their mechanical capabilities in a "Checkers or Wreckers" mentality.  Johnson is more of a tactician--and a "benefactee" of having the best engineers, engine builders and crew members on the circuit.  You're more likely to hear the announcers say "Jimmy did a great job of keeping the nose of that car clean all day" or "(Crew Chief) Chad Knaus's pit strategy pays off!" than you are to hear "Johnson has just been driving the wheels off that Lowe's Chevy!"

Johnson's stature is also hurt by the decline of NASCAR during his decade of dominance.  Ratings, attendance and sponsorships are down precipitously in the past six or seven years.  Meanwhile, Petty and Earnhardt elevated the sport, with the former getting NASCAR out of backwoods and occasional segments on Wide World of Sports and into live TV coverage and national advertising campaigns--while the latter took the sport even higher--with TV ratings that beat out hockey and baseball nearly every weekend.  What also works against Johnson is that the level of competition has dropped off as well.  Petty won his titles against legends like David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, the Allison Brothers and Ned Jarrett.  Earnhardt had to compete with the likes of Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliot, Mark Martin and Darrell Waltrip every week.  I would put Jeff Gordon--who was the "lucky dog" of Hendrick Motorsports magic before Johnson--and Tony Stewart as the only guys approaching the level of the excellence seen in previous generations of drivers.

Make no mistake, winning a sixth season title is an incredible accomplishment--but I'm sorry--there is nothing "legendary" about Jimmie Johnson.

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