Commentary

Think what JJ and the No. 48 are doing is nothing special? Think again

You want a comparison of how difficult it is to three-peat in NASCAR? Think Vince Lombardi and the Packers and you still aren't there yet, writes Ed Hinton.

Updated: November 16, 2008, 12:42 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Lombardi's Packers.

Maybe that's the closest analogy in other sports to Jimmie Johnson's imminent Sprint Cup three-peat.

Yes, Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, 1965-67.

That will seem like apples-to-kumquats at best, sacrilege at worst, to the stick-and-ball crowd that despises NASCAR so.

But this is not about the specific type of sport -- endeavor, then, if you refuse to call NASCAR a sport.

This is about relentless human spirit, sheer talent at anything, and the difficulty, duration and intensity of work done in the name of sport.

This is about team effort as surely as any in the NFL.

The smallest mistake by one person out of many can ruin everything -- not just one bad move by the driver, but one bad call by the crew chief, one missed tweak by an engineer, one stumble by a pit crewman in a group of seven who must go over the wall as synchronized as any offensive line firing off the ball.

And this is about the odds overcome.

No college football team has ever won three straight national championships, but that's largely explained by the constant turnover of graduation.

In professional sports, NASCAR has mathematically been the hardest three-peat of all, with a 1.8 percent rate of occurrence. Only once has it been accomplished in 57 seasons, by Cale Yarborough, 1976-78.

The NFL three-peat is the next most difficult -- 2.2 percent of the time, Lombardi's Packers being the last team to accomplish it, and only the second (after the Packers of 1929-31).

To be the second NASCAR three-peater, Johnson now must finish just 36th or better in Sunday's Ford 400.

So these waning hours are the time to search sports history for three-peats analogous to what Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and their No. 48 team have wrought these three seasons.

Maybe Joe Torre's Yankees, 1998-2000? To be sure, that was a -- hrrmph -- well-funded team, as Hendrick Motorsports is today, that helped build the rate of World Series three-peats to 6.8 percent.

But Rick Hendrick also pours equal resources into three other units of his organization -- for Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Casey Mears -- and among them, they have a total of one win this year, by Earnhardt.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus
AP Photo/Terry RennaJimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus know how to celebrate after the Homestead race. Will they do it again Sunday?

Johnson has seven. So he by no means has simply ridden Hendrick cash and Hendrick technology.

Maybe the Lakers of 2000-2002? Too many stars -- on the court and sitting beside it -- as they helped make the NBA a relative cakewalk for three-peaters, at 16.4 percent of the time.

Johnson is California cool, all right, with celebrity friends, but hardly any of the public knows that.

Team sport that it is, NASCAR and its publicity machine nonetheless like to give a team one face -- the driver's. And Johnson's visage is at best an emerging one in American households. He is no Kobe or Shaq.

By now you're saying, c'mon, cut to the gearheadism -- find the only real analogy here, Yarborough's run.

Sorry, stick-and-ballers, and NASCAR believers alike. There's not enough there.

I was there for Cale's three-peat, and I'm here for Johnson's.

This one is a lot harder. And vastly different.

Yarborough had only two drivers, really, to beat for those first two Winston Cups: Richard Petty and Bobby Allison. David Pearson wasn't even competing for the championship -- he didn't run the full schedule.

Nowadays, if a team is going to play NASCAR at all, it runs the full season, with high financing -- there aren't any more saddle-tramp "independent" drivers, barely qualifying to fill out fields, then limping around tracks on used tires with zero chance of winning.

For the third Cup, Cale beat an emerging Darrell Waltrip. How hard was that? Champion separated from runner-up by Labor Day at the Southern 500, when the mouthy youngster wrecked himself out and Yarborough won the race -- indeed, that was the day Yarborough dubbed Waltrip "Jaws."

Plus, three times in '78, Yarborough finished races after his Junior Johnson team changed engines in midrace, a practice that was outlawed after that season.

Junior Johnson had built a superb team like Hendrick's, but there have been plenty of other superb teams down through these three decades.

The best comparison -- and perhaps the essential reason the three-peat phenomenon is recurring after all this time -- is the tenacity of the drivers.

Yarborough would wrestle a fitful car around a track and salvage finishes better than the car seemed capable of. And so does Johnson.

Jimmie Johnson is the Bart Starr in this analogy -- the quarterback, surely vital to his team but by no means all of it.

Vince Lombardi's counterpart here is Chad Knaus -- a driven, driving coach whose men can love and loathe him in the same thought. Regardless, they obey.

The unheralded assistant coach from the New York Giants came to be head coach at Green Bay, under no great expectations except from himself.

When Hendrick and Gordon decided to form a fourth team in 2002, with Gordon as owner, Gordon had no doubt whom he wanted as quarterback.

[+] EnlargeVince Lombardi
AP PhotoVince Lombardi pushed his players hard, a trait shared by Jimmie Johson's crew chief, Chad Knaus.

It was the El Cajon, Calif., driver who had come off the deserts and dirt tracks with uncanny car control, who was cool and comfortable and lightning-reflexed even when a car was sideways -- or any which way, for that matter.

Now what about a coach, a crew chief? Somebody within the Hendrick organization came out of left field, suggesting Knaus.

Gordon was astounded, highly doubtful: "Chad Knaus? Isn't he just a tire changer?"

But the kid who had headed south and never looked back after high school graduation in Rockford, Ill., had shown Rick Hendrick a glint of fire and ice, and workaholic leadership.

This incarnation of Lombardi and Starr didn't exactly mesh at first. Johnson balked at Knaus' constant bossing -- "I thought they were gonna have to go out behind the building" and duke it out, Hendrick said of their early relationship.

Knaus called the races as "not so much a coach as a general -- he commands," Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte, once said.

Lombardi couldn't whip the Philadelphia Eagles in his first outing for the NFL championship, but no one in football, from that day in 1960, doubted that the Packers would be serious contenders perennially.

Knaus and Johnson got near, but not to, championships at first. From their first season together in 2002, there was no doubt that the 48 team would be in the hunt every year.

The league changed the playoff format on the Packers after the '65 NFL championship game, introducing a new concept called the Super Bowl.

The Packers rolled on.

The league changed the format on Johnson and Knaus after they won a 10-team Chase in '06. In '07 and this year, they have dominated 12-team fields seeded according to regular-season wins.

The NFL never restricted Lombardi to players of the same size and ability as all other teams, never denied him any who were agile.

But that's what NASCAR did to Knaus, first by instituting the Car of Tomorrow for 14 races last year and then mandating the still-clumsy "new car" for all races this year.

Nobody despised this de facto kit car more than Knaus, but he drove his people relentlessly, and slaved himself, to figure it out.

It was to southern Florida, to the old Orange Bowl, that the Packers came in 1968 for Super Bowl II, to complete what was then the hardest three-peat in pro sports.

Thirty miles to the south, at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday, Johnson and Knaus go for the most difficult three-peat of their time.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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