The Jimmie Johnson Dynasty
The driver is in a pole position for an unprecedented fifth-straight championship
They are dynasties.
When Johnson was asked to rank his streak of four NASCAR Sprint Cup championships in a row to the other championship streaks, he said, "That's not for me to decide."
Johnson heads into Sunday's Pepsi MAX 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., with a slight eight-point lead over Denny Hamlin in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings. Johnson is seeking an unprecedented fifth Cup championship in a row. The race at Fontana is the fourth in the 10-race NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
While Johnson might not want to rank his championship streak, other drivers and owners know he is near impossible to beat at this time of year. It must be like facing the UCLA Bruins men's basketball team during the John Wooden years or the Boston Celtics when Bill Russell was guiding them through the playoffs.
"I think they got everything put together," NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs said. "They got the right driver with the right crew chief. They got great resources. They don't have a weak spot. That's how you win championships. I've always said, the hardest thing in pro sports is to be there year in and year out and put together a string."
As winner of the previous three fall races at Auto Club Speedway, Johnson has to be considered the favorite to win Sunday's Cup race. Another win and Johnson could easily distance himself from the rest of the Chase field.
He already has the record for most Cup championships in a row, breaking the mark of three in a row set by Cale Yarborough from 1976 to 1978.
Johnson is on the verge of entering legendary territory. There are only a handful of pro and college teams that have won five or more championships in a row.
The New York Yankees won five World Series in a row from 1949 to 1953. The Montreal Canadiens won five Stanley Cups in a row from 1956 to 1960. The Boston Celtics won eight NBA championships in a row from 1959 to 1966.
The UCLA men's basketball team is the standard for excellence with seven straight NCAA tournament championships from 1967 to 1973.
Johnson is in position to win his fifth Cup championship in a row. Hamlin, Johnson's closest competitor in the Cup standings, said Johnson has a decided advantage in the Chase format.
Basically, I want to emphasize, the hardest thing in pro sports is to be there year in and year out and play consistently over a long period of time. You can jump up there and win something every now and then, but to be there year in and year out is very hard to do.” -- NASCAR team owner and Super-Bowl winning coach Joe Gibbs
"The 48 [Jimmie Johnson] is definitely the favorite, with the 29 [Kevin Harvick] right behind him, in my eyes," said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. "Those guys -- one has shown the consistency to win the championship this year and the other has shown that when it comes game time, he is ready to play. In my eyes, we haven't won one yet. We're 0-for-4, so it's time for us to step up."
Gibbs, the owner of Joe Gibbs Racing and the former coach of the Washington Redskins, has seen and competed against dynasty teams before. His Redskins beat the Buffalo Bills, winners of four AFC championships in a row, in Super Bowl XXVI. He also coached against the Dallas Cowboys, winners of three Super Bowls in four years from 1992 to 1995.
"In football when you actually line up on the field and physically can hit each other, that's one thing," Gibbs said. "But in racing, there's still that mental thing. Everybody's shooting for that. That's the person everybody's trying to beat, find a way to beat. So far, that's been extremely hard to do. Basically, I want to emphasize, the hardest thing in pro sports is to be there year in and year out and play consistently over a long period of time.
"You can jump up there and win something every now and then, but to be there year in and year out is very hard to do."
Johnson has made winning the Chase look easy over the past four seasons. It didn't seem to matter whether he was leading entering the Chase or down in the standings, his team puts together its best races in the playoffs.
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"I think what stands out to me is no matter how he's run through the season and how many times you guys want to say, 'Oh, he's vulnerable,' boom, he's right there in the Chase," said Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. "It's like they flipped the switch on and they're there. They know how to do it. They know how to run these last 10 races. I don't know if they have a team meeting before every race and say this is what we're going to do today and they end up doing it or what."
Busch added that even when it looks like Johnson is out of contention in the Chase, his team finds a way to bounce back.
He crashed and finished 38th in last year's race at Texas Motor Speedway, the eighth race in the Chase. He saw his lead shrink to 73 points over Mark Martin with two races to go. But Johnson maintained his lead and won the Chase.
"I don't think Texas was necessarily planned last year, he got wrecked on Lap 1 or 2 or whatever it was," Busch said. "It was a product of what happens through the Chase. They're able to put it together. They always have fast race cars. Jimmie is a pretty smart driver and knows what to do in certain circumstances. He's pretty smart at knowing how to win a championship, being able to do it four times in a row."
Johnson has already won one race in the Chase, two weeks ago at Dover International Speedway in Delaware. He has won as many as four Chase races in the past. If he can do that again, his fifth straight Cup championship should fall into place.
"It's a great position to be in, but it's way too early to think about it, to worry about defending," Johnson said following a runner-up finish at Kansas Speedway on Sunday. "You have Chase guys running so good each and every week. It is way too early to think about those things. Way, way too early."
Tim Haddock is a freelance journalist who writes for nascar.com and is author of the blog haddockinthepaddock.com