- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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HAMPTON, Ga. -- A manufacturer executive known for saying outrageous things now and then recently suggested tongue-in-cheek that team owner Rick Hendrick switch the driver of the No. 48 car, Jimmie Johnson, with the driver of the No. 88, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For the good of the sport, you know.
From the looks of qualifying for Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, one might speculate that happened. Johnson, who has won two of the first three races this season and the past four championships, qualified 16th. NASCAR's most popular driver, who has gone 60 starts without a win and is 15th in points, is on the pole.
Cha-ching. You can hear those cash registers at the ticket office ringing.
OK, we can assume Hendrick didn't swap cars. But since suggestions have been made, jokingly or not, one might suggest that more than just fans believe Johnson is stinking up the show with his dominance.
Even Jeff Gordon, Johnson's teammate and car co-owner, on Friday searched for a solution as he suggested that the sport needs Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart to start "butting heads and ... trying to beat one another and talking trash."
When asked if he would start something with Johnson -- again, for the good of the sport -- Gordon laughed and said, "Hey, just give me the script, and as long as I get to go to Victory Lane five or six times, you know, I'll take it."
We've heard from fans for a while that Johnson's dominance isn't good for NASCAR. The cries have gotten louder since his two early wins this season. One of you asked if the drivers and crew members feel the same way, if it ticks them off to see the same guy winning week after week.
So I asked. Here's Gordon's take.
"Hell, yeah!" said the four-time champion, who will start fifth on Sunday. "When you win that much, it ticks everybody else off and they all have to work harder and they all get fired up to go out there and try to knock that guy off. And you can't blame those guys [Johnson's team] for wanting to dominate, and that's great.
"But you can't blame the others for wanting to keep them from winning, as well. That's a whole part of sports in general."
The frustration is made even worse when Johnson wins the way he has the past two weeks. His victory at California was aided by a late break in which he got off pit road by mere milliseconds ahead of leader Jeff Burton and crossed the start-finish line when caution came out. That allowed him to stay on the lead lap and eventually take the lead when the others pitted.
It was such a break that Kevin Harvick said Johnson had a golden horseshoe where the sun doesn't shine.
A week later at Las Vegas, Johnson stole a race that Gordon dominated because Johnson took four tires on the final stop and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate took two.
"I'm around a lot of people, not just my team, but I'm around a lot of people that the last two weeks have just flipped out [saying,] 'How did he win that race? He's lucky. Pisses me off,'" Burton said. "I'm not that way, I'm honestly not.
"My motivation isn't knocking them off; my motivation is us doing better. That's the only focus you can have. I don't race Jimmie with animosity; I don't race him with jealousy. I'm envious of him, no question. Who wouldn't be? ... We just have to be better."
It really is that simple. It's not Johnson's responsibility to slide back to the competition because his team is winning. For those who think he will get comfortable, forget about it, because it's not likely to happen.
As Kyle Busch said, "There's no question that the 48 [is] the best team, probably in history."
Best in the history of NASCAR might be debatable, but there's no debating he's the best now. With one more win over the next few weeks, Johnson (at 294 Cup starts and counting) will become the fourth-fastest to get to 50 behind Gordon (232), Darrell Waltrip (278) and David Pearson (293). Junior Johnson earned his 50th win in his 303rd start.
Is the competition impressed? No doubt. Is it intimidated? Hardly.
"Obviously they have made it happen and have won the first couple of races, but I don't think they are any better than we are right now," points leader Harvick said.
Said Harvick's Richard Childress Racing teammate, Clint Bowyer: "I believe this could be the year that somebody could stop them in the Chase. Competition is getting closer and closer to catching them."
Again, don't look for Johnson to slow down -- or switch cars with Earnhardt. Asked what was harder to believe -- the fake video released Thursday showing Johnson barely escaping injury when his car fell off a lift, or his winning two of the first three -- he picked the video.
"Based on the other 47 wins we have," Johnson said with a smile, "I don't think those two were a fluke."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As in all sports, you have to beat the best to be the best in NASCAR. So if Jimmie Johnson isn't going to let up, what can the other drivers do about it? Step up. And many want to.