Commentary

Putting JJ's dominance in perspective

Updated: November 25, 2009, 9:42 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

An old history professor friend of mine liked to say of some major current event, "I'm anxious for 25 or 30 years to pass so we can view this in historical perspective."

That's how long it might take for Jimmie Johnson's unprecedented four-peat of the NASCAR championship to be appreciated in full.

Oh, the fans in the stands at Homestead-Miami Speedway cheered him politely, the only decent thing to do, after he won the title with a fifth-place finish in Sunday's season-ending Ford 400.

But now the resentment among many if not most NASCAR fans will set in, and it might last until Johnson, now 34, is eligible for Medicare.

It is a fandom deaf in the short haul to what Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, said so accurately about him to ESPN TV reporters: "That guy can do things with a race car that I've never seen done before."

This is a realm that frowns on dominance and takes decades to forgive excellence.

The leading indicator is that it took 30 years after Cale Yarborough's three-peat for NASCAR to take him on a sort of tour of honor, culminating at its New York awards ceremonies in December 2008 -- and even then only in conjunction with Johnson's becoming the second driver to three-peat.

They didn't have elaborate New York banquets when Yarborough rampaged through NASCAR in 1976-77-78.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
AP Photo/Terry Renna The big question facing Jimmie Johnson after his four-peat performance: Can he make it five?

And they didn't appreciate what he was doing, either.

A prime example: Down the stretch to his third title, in October '78 at Rockingham, N.C., Yarborough was leading by two laps by midrace, on his way to his 10th win of the season.

Retiring to the rear of the press box in search of coffee to stay awake, I encountered Herman Hickman, the Rock's longtime chief publicist, an ever-genial gentleman who never had so much as a bad word for anybody. Well, almost never.

He was pacing the floor near the coffee urn. He was muttering.

"What's the matter, Herman?" I asked.

"Cale's an a------," he grumbled. "He's f---ing up my race."

I knew a guy in Atlanta who made and sold T-shirts reading "ABC -- Anybody But Cale."

That's what they thought of Yarborough's accomplishment while it was happening.

And now comes the realization that Johnson, too, might be white-haired before he is appreciated.

For analysis, I phoned a younger history professor friend who studies NASCAR. Dr. Wanda Ellen Wakefield is a professor of history and popular culture at the State University of New York's Brockport campus. She has had her finger on the pulse of NASCAR and its fans since she became fascinated with the Dale Earnhardt phenomenon in the 1990s.

In refusing to embrace Johnson's four-peat, "I think the NASCAR fans are probably responding to what has essentially been very boring racing the last two years," Wakefield said.

"And Jimmie Johnson is a perfectly nice guy apparently, but he's kind of bland.

"So it's been boring racing, and Jimmie Johnson is cursed with consistency and blandness."

To that, add the classic watershed line among fans of all sports.

"In the United States, sports fans are divided into two strands," Wakefield said. "One is the strand that embraces excellence. The other is represented by the people who really like the underdog and really have trouble with overdogs.

"That's what's happening here."

Overdog -- I can't think of a better term for how you the majority of fans view Johnson. And I think in NASCAR, more of you have issues with overdogs than in any other sport.

Now this is Wakefield wearing her pop culture hat, understanding the current event and your attitudes toward it. In her historian's hat, she is true to her discipline.

"In general, you don't know how remarkable achievement is in terms of sport until you have a look back at it."

That is, from decades hence -- when the whole picture is complete.

"What we're assuming here is that it's four and done" for Johnson, Wakefield said. "What about 'one for the thumb'?"

What about all the way to a six-peat?

[+] EnlargeCale Yarborough
AP PhotoCale Yarborough was the first driver to win three straight Cup championships.

"From the perspective of a historian, definitely 30 years from now you can assess his achievement by factors such as, did he continue to do well? And did someone else in that 30 years approach his achievement?"

Each season Johnson repeats as champion will exponentially increase the pressure on him, and therefore the value of the achievement, Wakefield believes.

"Let's pretend next year we're having this conversation -- which is entirely possible. There's no reason to assume he won't have all of the factors on his side that he has this year.

"So one of the things we look at from the historical perspective is, 'This is a magnificent achievement; what happens next?' Let's pretend … next year he finishes first.

"Then you've got the sort of burden of, will he win the next year? Which puts more pressure on. Which indeed makes the achievement more remarkable."

Whether it's four and done, or six or seven and done, the next key factor is whether anybody else puts together a similar streak in the course of the next 30 years.

"When Cale Yarborough won three, nobody knew it was going to be so long for the next three-peat," Wakefield pointed out from the historical perspective of 30 years.

So, "until we know whether anyone else ever approaches [Johnson's] achievement, we don't know what the achievement really means."

For example, "Let's pretend Jimmie does his four, and next year Joey Logano, to pick a name out of the air, wins. And Logano wins the next four. Well, then, Johnson's achievement is remarkable, but it's not remarkable out of the context of the way NASCAR's championships are evolving. That's where you just don't know.

"But if indeed, 30 years from now Johnson's four-peat has not been repeated, then there you go."

For analogy in another sport, "Let's take for example Roger Maris, who of course was not embraced at the time of his 61 home runs [in 1961]. He was harassed, as a matter of fact. At the time, I imagine people assumed, 'OK, Roger Maris got the 61 home runs, but that's not such a remarkable achievement … somebody else will get that 61 or 62 very easily and very quickly.'

"And it didn't happen. And so as time went on, it became more and more remarkable the 61 home runs were." And Wakefield argues that, for all the skepticism over Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, all of whom have since broken Maris' record that stood for 37 years, history also will treat their achievements more kindly than contemporary culture does.

Thinking analytically, Wakefield has to allow for the possibility of someone else matching Johnson's achievement. But as a longtime NASCAR writer whose job always includes some conjecture, I would rate the chances of someone else getting the right combination of Johnson's consistency and talent, plus a clockwork crew chief like Knaus, plus the enormous resources of a Hendrick Motorsports, as very slim indeed.

Regardless, Jimmie Johnson's place, present and future, in NASCAR history, all comes back to the axiom of that old driver/philosopher Jeff Burton.

"You never get your just due in the era that you're in," Burton said recently of Johnson. "The people you're competing against don't want to give it to you."

Maybe NASCAR fans' bent against overdogs actually stems from the attitudes in the garages, where competitors want no part of yielding milestones to others.

A decade after Yarborough's three-peat, he had moved on to another team, and in 1987 almost prevented Bill Elliott from winning the Winston Million bonus at Darlington, S.C. I remember very well that after that race, Yarborough's crew chief, Waddell Wilson, stood in the pits stunned with anger and outrage, randomly swinging a towel around his head with furious energy.

I asked Wilson whether it weren't a bit of consolation that his and Yarborough's loss led to a milestone achievement in NASCAR.

"Why, hell, no!" Wilson growled, and went on swinging the towel around his head in disgust. All he had wanted was to prevent Elliott's milestone.

Now, not all NASCAR fans feel the way the now-notorious dancing fans at the fence near the scene of Johnson's wreck at Texas felt. Homestead-Miami Speedway president Curtis Gray, although acknowledging that Johnson's runaway hadn't exactly helped ticket sales for the Ford 400 season finale, did point out to me that a significant number of ticket buyers said they were doing so "to be part of the celebration of Jimmie's accomplishment."

But NASCAR fans, by and large, rejoice in seeing big winners fall. And they resent good fortune -- especially Johnson's seemingly charmed existence during this run.

"Not only has he been consistently good but he's been consistently lucky," Wakefield said. "To have gone four years and have a [streak] like this is both a reflection of his skills and a reflection of his basic luck.

"And I think that kind of worries people sometimes, too."

Assuming all is well with NASCAR in 2039 or 2040 -- and that's not a 100 percent safe assumption, considering the likely demise of fossil-fuel vehicles and the current malaise of the NASCAR fan base -- all that will stand out in minds of the time are the numbers.

The luck, the Hendrick financing, the brilliance of Knaus may well fade in the public mind, so that Johnson's four-peat -- or five-peat, or six-peat -- stands uncluttered.

So maybe they'll parade the graying old driver out onto some stage somewhere, maybe still Las Vegas, and they will speak in awe of what he did.

Maybe they will recognize that not even the seven-time champions, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, were ever able to put four years of uninterrupted dominance together.

Maybe they will acknowledge that neither Petty nor Earnhardt ever faced the intensity and breadth of competition Johnson did.

Maybe they will take a full look at all of NASCAR history and see that, through all of it, there is only one open-ended question as to who else might have four-peated or beyond.

In 1962 and '63, Joe Weatherly and car owner/crew chief Bud Moore had won two straight championships and showed no letup at rolling up titles, until Weatherly was killed at Riverside, Calif., in January of the '64 season. That's the only one we will never know.

Maybe the graying fans of JJ's era of triumph -- I think I know you pretty well -- will say in 30 years that you were one of the few who recognized the greatness, the history, in the making. Maybe you'll say you saw it all along, that you were unique, not among the boo-birds, the grumblers, the detractors, the dancers at the scenes of his wrecks.

Hindsight works that way sometimes.

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

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