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Hate Not the Player

10/27/2008
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Stop complaining about the Chase for the Cup format and Jimmie Johnson's march to three Cups in a row. It's not the system's fault that he keeps blowing it up.

My fellow race fans, it's time to stop hating and start appreciating. What we are currently witnessing is no less than the greatest three-year run by one NASCAR team in at least twenty years, perhaps ever, and no points system overhaul or Car of Tomorrow or book full of rules changes can take away from that fact.

First, you need to understand this: I have never been a believer that dynasties are good for sports. My friends around this business, print and TV, have long tried to convince me that a Cowboys-Yankees-Celtics-style multiyear beatdown is good for everyone in the league, thanks to the increased exposure of history in the making. Me? Still not believing. (Then again, that might be because I grew up a Redskins-Red Sox-Hornets fan.) But even as a non-dynastic, I am willing to admit when it's time to sit back and soak up what is happening before us, whether it's Bird on the break or Emmitt in the backfield.

What the Lowe's Race Team has accomplished, nearly since the moment of conception, has quietly become the most stunning pile of stats since the late '90's heyday of the team's co-owner, Jeff Gordon. And don't tell anyone, but they might even be a little better.

So let's consider a few things here to point out why.

No. 1: Sunday was Johnson's 252nd Cup Series start and he picked up his 100th career top five and 155th top ten finish. In the sixty-year history of NASCAR only two drivers have posted better numbers over their first 252 races—Gordon and Herb Thomas, who made only 228 starts in a career that essentially ended in 1956.

That means JJ's career has gotten off to a better start than David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Tony Stewart and…well, you see where I'm going here.

If he wins his third straight Cup title—and it's going to take a meteor hitting his car during one the final three races to keep him from doing it—he will become only the second driver to three-peat (check's in the mail, Pat Riley), pulling alongside childhood hero Cale Yarborough.

But Cale didn't have to race with as many weekly contenders as Johnson has. Yarborough never had one of his giant points leads wiped away with ten races to go like Johnson has (thanks Chase). And NASCAR didn't come along and completely change the car Cale drove from nose to tail like it has done to Johnson with the CoT.

No. 2: Sunday's second place finish at the Atlanta Motor Speedway was a prime example of what Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have been able to accomplish week after week since they shocked the garage by finishing 5th in points in their '02 rookie campaign.

An early pit road penalty put them a full lap down, running as low as 30th and in place to have their points lead cut in half by Carl Edwards. The Chevy handled like a wheel barrow in the middle stages of the race, but Knaus kept promising his driver that the car was going to come around, especially if he could find his way back into the top ten. Johnson did and the car took off, as he nearly ran down Edwards before finishing second and expanding his once-shrinking points lead to 183, equal to more than one full race.

"The great ones, they don't have bad days," Junior Johnson said from his home near North Wilkesboro, NC. Johnson (no relation, though he did own the original Lowe's car) was the owner of Yarborough's three-time championship ride and won six Cups in ten years with Cale and Darrell Waltrip. "You can take a bad day and turn it into something, get those points even when you didn't have any business getting them. That's what Jimmie Johnson's team does and they do it better than anybody that's come along in a long, long time."

Nobody eliminates "bad days" like Johnson, which makes "bad years" an impossibility.

No. 3: Johnson has never finished worse than 5th in his seven-year Cup career. In the previous six years he's finished first or second four times. Should he hang onto his lead and win the '08 championship ("Don't' worry, he is," says Junior), his average points position for his career will be 2.4.

By the end of his seventh season, Jeff Gordon had also won three Cups, but finished 6th or worse in the point standings three times, including an 8th and 9th. Stewart's first seven years included two championships, but 15 fewer race wins and three points finishes outside the top five.

Still don't believe?

Then you never will. And that's okay. I was like you once, tired of watching one team beat the crap out of mine week after week. But at some point you have to take off your hat that's emblazoned with the logo of another team, place it over your heart, and recognize the truth:

This is the best looking dynasty since Joan Collins was tossing Linda Evans into the swimming pool.