Commentary

What's a three-time Cup champ to do?

Carl Edwards the new media darling of 2009? Giving three-time defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson a little bulletin-board incentive can't be good, can it?

Updated: January 23, 2009, 4:18 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Jimmie JohnsonAP Images for Sprint NASCAR/David GoldmanJimmie Johnson will be looking over his shoulder at Carl Edwards and the gang again.

CONCORD, N.C. -- "You're crazy."

That was the message the bossman left after receiving the budget line for today's column, which said, "You're crazy if you don't pick Jimmie Johnson to win a fourth straight championship."

He apparently remembered my pick of Carl Edwards, not Johnson, to win the 2009 title earlier in the week in a survey of ESPN.com's so-called experts. Oops.

Crazy.

Johnson must think it's crazy as well. He appeared irked this week on the NASCAR media tour when told Edwards had been selected by a group of media to stop his string.

"I heard that at [the Fan Fest] at Daytona that they ranked him as the favorite to win, and I'm like, 'Uh, really? I just won three of these things. I can't believe I wouldn't be,'" he said.

Johnson has every right to feel slighted. To pick anybody else is crazy, even if you're doing it just to be different. If seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt had won three in a row, don't you think everybody would pick him again? Or what about four-time champion Jeff Gordon? Or seven-time champ Richard Petty?

Heck, if Dale Earnhardt Jr. won three in a row and somebody picked anybody other than him to win the fourth year, there would be a revolt.

Just stick this in Johnson's ever-growing file labeled "Lack of respect."

"I don't know what the guy has got to do," said Rick Hendrick, Johnson's team owner. "If you say you've never finished below fifth in the points, and look at his percentage of wins and three championships back to back to back, what does he have to do?

"He's got the same equipment everybody else here has, and look at what he's done with it. It blows me away why he's got to maybe retire [before he is appreciated]. What does he have to accomplish for people to say he's one of the best that's ever been?"

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Jason Smith/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson upon hearing the NASCAR media chose Carl Edwards to win it all in 2009: "It got my attention ..."
Johnson's numbers are gaudy. He has 40 victories in 255 races, a 15.6 winning percentage. Dale Earnhardt won only 26 times in his first 255, and Petty 33.

Johnson's 156 top-10s during that span are one more than Earnhardt and only 33 behind Petty, who had far less competition when he started during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

And as Hendrick reminded us, Johnson hasn't finished outside the top five in seven seasons. He's been outside the top two only twice.

Edwards has had a nice career. His series-leading nine wins last season were great, and he's finished in the top 10 in points three of four full seasons.

But his numbers pale in comparison to Johnson's, and to pick him above the second driver in the history of the sport to win three straight titles just doesn't seem right.

Cale Yarborough, the other driver to win three straight (1976 through 1978), certainly was the media choice in 1979.

Johnson should be in 2009.

"It got my attention when I heard it," said Johnson, sporting a new beard that makes him look more intimidating. "I'm like, 'Really?' But I guess I'm used to that in a lot of ways. You know, I'll just go out and let my actions on the track speak for themselves."

He shouldn't have to. He already has done enough on the track to deserve top billing until somebody knocks him off his pedestal.

Some people don't even consider Johnson the top driver at Hendrick Motorsports. Greg Biffle said Gordon is the best driver in the series. Fans, according to the numbers, think no one is better than Dale Earnhardt Jr., even though he hasn't come close to winning his first title.

Some people are touting 50-year-old Mark Martin, who will take over the No. 5 at HMS, as the favorite.

"Mark is spectacular," Edwards said. "You put Mark in the Chase and give him 10 races to get it done … you're going to have to beat Mark to win the championship, that's for sure."

Last anybody looked, Martin doesn't have a title. He's finished second five times, and this will be the first time he's run a full Sprint Cup season since 2006 at Roush Fenway Racing, so naturally the title has to go through him.

"He gets overshadowed," Hendrick said of Johnson. "They still look at us like, 'This is where Jeff Gordon is or Dale Earnhardt is now.'"

It's true. Only a handful of the 50 people interviewed in New York City during the season-ending banquet had heard of Johnson, but almost half knew who Gordon and Earnhardt were.

It's sad.

"I just started reading [Johnson's] stats toward the end of the year," Hendrick said. "We kind of had to put them out there for people to say, 'That is pretty damn good what he's done, pretty amazing.'

"I'll tell you something, the guy is a student of racing. He will sit down and analyze tracks, other drivers, and he'll get in a race and he'll start sizing up the guys he's racing and what they're doing. He's thinking all the time. He's one of the smartest drivers I've ever seen, on top of being talented."

It blows me away why he's got to maybe retire [before he is appreciated]. What does he have to accomplish for people to say he's one of the best that's ever been?

-- Rick Hendrick on Jimmie Johnson

Amazingly, Johnson wasn't picked by the other drivers to drive his way into the history books in an informal survey during the media tour. Most were like 2000 champion Bobby Labonte, pausing for a few seconds to consider their choices.

"Uhhhhh. Hmmmmm. Did Biffle finish second in points last year?" Labonte asked. "Or Carl?"

No, Biffle was a very distant third. Edwards was second.

"I kind of look at it as the guy that finished second [has something to prove]," Labonte said. "Jimmie Johnson has finished first three years in a row, so you can't say that all the time.

"It's kind of like Wake Forest losing [this past week]. You can't win them all. Carl is probably poised to do it just because of what he's done. So I'd say he's poised to do it and Jimmie could do it again, because he's got all the numbers to go with it."

Not everybody hesitates to give Johnson props. The recently married Edwards, despite his affection for Martin, says Johnson will be the "odds-on favorite just because he's been doing so well."

He reminded us that until somebody figures out how to duplicate Johnson's consistency in the Chase, everybody is playing for second.

Johnson's Chase numbers are staggering. In 50 races since the format was adopted in 2004, he has 14 wins and 36 top-10s. Biffle has only 14 wins in his entire seven-year career. Kyle Busch, whom many consider the favorite behind Edwards, has only 12.

"I am going to have a hard time betting against the 48 team," said Red Bull Racing's Brian Vickers, Johnson's former teammate at HMS. "If they keep doing what they've been doing and hanging together, they're the best team in the garage now. That's our goal, to beat them."

Vickers doesn't understand how Johnson can be underrated. He certainly doesn't believe that's the case among fellow drivers.

"Jimmie is a pretty quiet guy," he said. "He flies under the radar a little bit. Maybe that's why he doesn't draw a lot of attention. He's not going to get out of the car and slap somebody beside the head, which I think is a great thing.

"But he's obviously a very talented driver. Jimmie's not going to drive off into Turn 4 four car lengths deeper than he should, smack off the wall and then go through the dirt and come back up on the track. But that's also why he wins championships."

Matt Kenseth, the 2003 champions, agreed: "I've picked Jimmie every year for the last four years."

Nobody has ever said Kenseth is crazy. They've called him boring at times, which he's really not, but never crazy.

"I'll pick him again until they prove me wrong," Kenseth said.

Everybody should. That everybody doesn't will only give Johnson motivation to win again.

"I mean, if I had won three in a row, I'd be surprised, too," Edwards said. "It doesn't really matter what the pick is at the beginning of the season. I mean, they picked me in 2006 to win the championship, and I didn't win a race. I don't think I made the Chase, either."

Edwards' team owner, Jack Roush, seemed to enjoy it when told Johnson appeared bothered about not being picked first.

"I wondered where his button was," he said. "If that's the button, we'll have to push it more often."

Roush certainly isn't conceding anything, particularly to the Hendrick empire he would love to beat more than any other.

"If there's a consensus that's what's going to happen, we should save us all a lot of money and effort and just go give him the trophy and call it 2009," he said, tongue in cheek.

Now that is crazy. Johnson will have to earn this one just as he did the past three.

But to pick somebody else is crazy when you consider all the facts.

"There's a lot of racing between now and the [end of the season]," Johnson said. "At the start of the season last year, it was easy to forget about us, and I think at the end of last year it was easy to forget about [Busch], and we know he's going to be strong.

"So I guess my point to that is racing's a weird deal and it can change in a short period of time."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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