Best storyline? A JJ four-peat
Of the 12 possible championship stories that could emerge from the Chase that begins Sunday, only half would be good for NASCAR both from the inside and the outside.
That is, they could have the badly needed, double-barrel effect of both re-energizing NASCAR's weary fan base and -- even more importantly -- ringing the chimes of the mainstream public right at the crescendo of football season.
Here, in countdown order, are six stories that would resonate after these long, long playoffs end Nov. 22.
Superb work by a newly assembled team, and Stewart has high name recognition, but he's ranked sixth because the difference would be vast from what Kulwicki did.
Just beneath the surface of the owner-driver headlines, Stewart essentially was handed co-ownership in Stewart-Haas Racing, with a promise from Rick Hendrick to supply the best of equipment. With Harvard MBA Brett Frood running Stewart's businesses, engineer Bobby Hutchens running competition technology and engineer Darian Grubb serving as the No. 14's crew chief, Stewart really is just the driver in the seat on weekends.
Kulwicki was almost a one-man band, literally managing his team from the driver's seat. He even ordered the type of tires to be put on, midrace, back during the tire wars between Goodyear and Hoosier. He ran on less than half the budgets of the teams he beat -- Junior Johnson and Associates, Robert Yates Racing, et al.
This combination would appeal to a broader cross-section of NASCAR demographics than any other, and catch the ear of young America.
The old guard, feeling forlorn for these past 15 years since Dale Earnhardt's last championship, would be overjoyed to see the lanky man in the cowboy hat and sunglasses back in the forefront again. And a championship would be a boon for Richard Petty Motorsports in wooing sponsorship for its other drivers, by demonstrating strength in the team as it prepares to switch from Dodge to Ford next year.
From young professionals to college students to small children, even casual NASCAR fans would join in the celebration because of their fascination with the man whose name sounds like some sort of action toy, a name they pronounce as one word, "KaseyKahne."
4. Jeff Gordon finally wins a fifth title, eight years after his fourth.
To the mainstream public, Gordon's household presence would return with oomph, on the Pepsi commercials, "Saturday Night Live," "Live with Regis and Kelly," all that. To the fan base, a familiar face, now graying at the temples, would restore a sense of order, a feeling that things aren't necessarily changing too fast.
At age 38, Gordon is far past the young-gun stage and has come to appeal to traditionalists. A fifth title for him would be almost nostalgic to NASCAR Nation. And he remains NASCAR's chief ambassador to the larger nation.
Then again, there'd be some whose love of hating Gordon would re-emerge, so it would be fun -- to him as much as anybody else -- to hear the boobirds thunder at him again in the 2010 season.
3. Mark Martin finally wins a championship and becomes the oldest driver to do so.
America has always had a soft spot for oldsters beating youngsters for sports titles, and this rings especially true now with the Baby Boomer generation reaching middle age and retirement.
Bobby Allison was a kid of 45 in 1983 when he became the oldest driver to win the championship thus far. Martin is 50, has finished second in the standings four times and has been in the hunt for the title late in the season a phenomenal nine times without winning it.
Inside NASCAR, there might be an even bigger outpouring of competitors onto pit road at Homestead-Miami than when crewmen lined up to congratulate Dale Earnhardt for finally winning the Daytona 500 in 1998. This time, it's entirely possible that every single driver would join Martin in his championship celebration at the track.
2. Juan Pablo Montoya becomes the first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR championship.
This would be bigger outside NASCAR than inside. This would be a world-shaker in motor racing and in all of sports.
Begin in the U.S., where Montoya could grab the attention of the entire Latino population for NASCAR. Continue on through Mexico, Central America and South America, where Montoya has had a significant following since his Formula One years.
Then add the entire Formula One-watching world. Detractors would claim a NASCAR championship must be easy if Montoya -- wildly aggressive in F1 and not a steady runner -- can win it. But just a little analysis would show Montoya has learned a deeper kind of patience than what is required in F1.
1 . Jimmie Johnson four-peats.
Give Americans a record, any record, and they'll celebrate it. Given his numbers, Johnson would have more of a forum than ever before, so the public would then listen more closely to this polite, soft-spoken man, bringing him closer to household-name status.
And this simply would be the most monumental accomplishment in NASCAR since the championship got to be a big deal back in the mid-1970s. Even when Cale Yarborough three-peated, in 1976-'77-'78, it wasn't much ballyhooed, because the Winston Cup was just taking hold in prestige.
Now, hard as titles are to win, a fourth would seal the recognition of the No. 48 team, which has contended for the championship since its formation in 2002, as clearly the best team of its era at doing what a team is supposed to do: win championships.
And it would leave Johnson standing indisputably where he belongs: among the all-time greats of NASCAR, of American motor racing and American sports.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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