Fans ready for changing of the guard?
DOVER, Del. -- Boos filled the air Saturday at Darlington Raceway when Jimmie Johnson was introduced in prerace festivities. They were replaced by cheers when the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion had his day end early in an accident for the second time in three weeks.
Perhaps you fans are trying to tell us something.
Perhaps you are trying to tell us that you're tired of seeing the No. 48 team dominate, that you're glad to see Denny Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing flex their muscles with four wins in the past six races and to see Richard Childress Racing run consistently in the top five again.
"I don't care what sport you're in, people love to see the big dog go down," RCR's Jeff Burton said Friday at Dover International Speedway.
Johnson is the big dog. He's won more races, more championships, more everything than anybody in the garage for four straight years -- longer if you ask most.
But don't get too excited. We've been here before. Eleven races into the 2008 season Johnson was 248 points out of the points lead. Kyle Busch was on top with three of his eight wins and Carl Edwards was right there too with three of his nine wins.
The only victory by Hendrick Motorsports at that point came from Johnson at Phoenix.
As we all remember, Johnson won five of the last 11 races to capture his third straight title.
Remember that before you say JGR, RCR or any other team has caught HMS. And certainly don't believe Rick Hendrick when he said earlier in the week that the Gibbs organization has "lapped us."
Hamlin doesn't believe it.
"Rick does a good job of motivating his team," he said. "That just may be motivation. His team always seems to stay on top. There are peaks and valleys that every team has. Hendrick is hardly ever on the down end. They're good. We still consider them the team to beat every time we go to the track."
So does everybody else. But you have to admit it is nice seeing the field tighten up to the point you can at least hope the Chase will be more than another HMS title run.
"How can anybody have more fun going to the track now with what's happening?" said Lee White, the president of Toyota Racing Development. "This is the best time in my mind in the sport of NASCAR racing in a long time.
"I told my accountant last week that after four decades of doing this I've never had as much fun going to the racetrack."
White isn't speaking totally as a Toyota representative here. He's speaking as a fan of the sport.
"It can't all be about one organization," White said. "You can't have it be predictable. The way it's gone the last five or six races, to me I hope it keeps up. Honestly, for the good of the sport, one of the Roush [Ford] guys needs to win a couple of races."
Ford hasn't won in any of NASCAR's top three series this season. Roush Fenway Racing's Edwards has gone winless for 47 consecutive events.
But Roush does have three drivers in the top 10 and has been close to winning on a few occasions.
"We are trying to catch up and get a handle on things right now," Edwards said. "If we can consistently run top-3 or top-5, like the Gibbs guys seem to be able to do They seem to be very capable of competing every week.
"We were like that in 2008. The amazing thing is that the Hendrick cars are able to do that every year and people make runs at them. I guess in a way, for the Gibbs guys to go out there and put pressure on them is good."
It can't be bad. And let's be honest, other than a hiccup here and there, JGR has been the organization-most-likely-to-succeed Hendrick for most of the past decade with its three titles, second to HMS' five.
"Gibbs in my eyes has always been really fighting for second, or in that second spot for quite some time," Roush's Greg Biffle said. "We made a run at that spot. Childress made a run at that spot.
"Obviously, Hendrick is a dominant force but I think that parity through the garage is obviously good for the sport."
You the fans apparently think so, too. Otherwise, you wouldn't have been so boisterous at Johnson's misery last weekend.
"My wife told me the place went crazy when he wrecked," Burton said. "It was a hard wreck and she was like, 'Golly, I hope people realize how hard that wreck was.' It surprised her that people were cheering."
It shouldn't have. Fans in any sport want to see the top seed knocked off. It creates excitement and stirs emotion. It's why people go nuts when a No. 15 seed beats a No. 2 in the NCAA basketball tournament.
It's good for the sport.
Part of our sport is as much about pulling against somebody as it is pulling for somebody.” -- Jeff Burton
"It's good for us," Burton said. "Parity is a great thing. On the same token I believe having someone to knock off is a good thing for the sport, too. Someone needs to be the top guy, and someone needs to be the one everybody is shooting for. When you have too much parity then it almost makes it hard to know who to pull for and who to pull against.
"Part of our sport is as much about pulling against somebody as it is pulling for somebody."
Right now Johnson appears to be the one being pulled against the most. His prerace boos at Darlington were louder than those for Kyle Busch, who gets booed simply because he is Kyle Busch.
That doesn't bother Johnson. He's not "really familiar" with some of the things being said about his team. All he knows is that he's on a stretch of bad luck, that the golden horseshoe current points leader Kevin Harvick claimed Johnson had earlier this year was knocked out in one of the four wrecks at Darlington.
"We're not where we want to be right now," Johnson said. "We're still very competitive not at a point to where some of the headlines may read that we're not competitive and we're not in this thing.
"But we have a little work to do."
One gets the feeling that the negativity toward the 48 may indeed motivate. When you've won as much as Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have the past four years, it's not easy to keep up the intensity.
Certainly don't blame the spoiler for what appears to be a swing in the balance of power. Johnson and most of the drivers say the difference in the car is minimal.
And as Johnson so correctly reminded, his only finishes outside the top 10 in six spoiler races were the ones in which he was involved in wrecks and did not finish. Two other races he finished in the top three.
And don't forget teammate Jeff Gordon has four top-5s with the spoiler and led 92 or more laps in four of the six races.
"I know there's been some conversation that maybe HMS or the 48 has had some troubles with the spoiler being on the car," Johnson said. "I can't say it's changed much for us."
What's changed are the cars visiting Victory Lane, and the fans seem to like that for the moment.
Will it last? The past four years say no. It could end on Sunday at Dover where Johnson has won five times, including twice last season.
"I wouldn't count them out just yet," Burton said. "I do believe they're second in points. It's not like they're 23rd. They're still a really good race team."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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