Does NASCAR need new champion?
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Kevin Harvick's postrace interview at Talladega Superspeedway was coming to a close this past Sunday when he was asked what it would mean to the sport for Jimmie Johnson's run of four straight Sprint Cup titles to end.
"No offense to him, but somebody else needs to win," Harvick said.
Responded Johnson, also in the room, "Says who?"
It was a cute moment. And Harvick, of course, was joking.
"I wasn't joking," Harvick said on Friday at Texas Motor Speedway.
Following a few moments for those of us gathered around the back of the No. 29 hauler, Harvick echoed what many fans and some sports writers have been saying for several years.
"People get tired of seeing the same guy winning," said Harvick, who trails Johnson by 38 points with three races remaining. "In the end it would bring new attention to the sport because it wouldn't be the same old thing, 'Johnson won again.'
"No, I wasn't joking."
It's disappointing to see competitors buy into the theory that attendance and television ratings are down because of Johnson's domination. It's disappointing to think they believe the No. 48 winning a fifth straight title would be bad for the sport.
Would a large portion of fans like to see a new champion? Certainly. If Johnson represents, say, 20 percent of the NASCAR fan base, then that's 80 percent pulling for somebody else.
And if you believe the hype, about 50 percent of them want Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win.
But if you're bored with watching Johnson win then you don't appreciate perfection; you don't have a respect for the place the driver will hold in history. If you're a driver bored with watching Johnson win then you're not doing enough, because it's your job to beat him.
There has to be a reason fans aren't watching that's bigger than one driver. Unfortunately, nobody can figure it out, so they put the blame on the biggest target -- Johnson.
Well, not everybody.
"I personally don't think it has anything to do with Jimmie winning four or five or six or however many [championships] he wins, because I think each one that he wins makes it that much more challenging for the other ones to pull it off and to take that away from him," said Johnson's teammate, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
"It should engage fans in even more ways to be anxious to see somebody do that."
Gordon speaks from experience. Many fans grew tired of his domination when he won championships in 1995, '97 and '98. They booed and heckled him like nobody else, particularly those jealous he'd stolen the spotlight from Dale Earnhardt.
But they didn't turn off their televisions or stop coming to races, and there's no reason to believe they are doing it now because of Johnson. So there has to be another reason, like the struggles of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
If Earnhardt's following is as huge as his merchandise sales say, then his failure to make the Chase in three of the past four seasons must have a negative impact, just as the hometown Dallas Cowboys' 1-6 start to the season has to have a negative impact on NFL interest.
"I don't think there's anybody here in this room today that would disagree that if Dale Junior was going for the championship and what that would do for us," Gordon said. "We all know that. Shoot, let's put Danica Patrick in there as well. We all know what draws the mass number of fans and what gets those spikes in there.
"But there is no control over that, and Jimmie and Chad [Knaus] and that No. 48 team are the best team out there, and they've shown it year in and year out and they deserve what they've accomplished."
But it's much simpler to bash Johnson, so the bandwagon grows. Now we have competitors such as Harvick and Denny Hamlin, the only drivers who can put an end to Johnson's run this year, jumping on it.
"I definitely think [a new champion] would be good and would add interest," said Hamlin , who trails Johnson by 14 points heading into Sunday's race. "People who don't know a whole lot about NASCAR just know Jimmie Johnson wins all the races, right?
"You can't blame him for winning, but it would be better if someone takes him off the top."
If roles were reversed, Johnson might say the same thing. That's because everyone wants to be top dog.
"As a competitor, you're tired of the same guy winning," Johnson said. "I guess I understand where they're coming from and what they're saying. I don't necessarily agree with it. I think it would be great for someone to win five straight."
What would be great is for fans to appreciate the best team winning. What would be great was if fans went to the track to see Johnson do his thing the way they went to the baseball park to see Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax pitch, the way they went to basketball games to watch Michael Jordan fly.
Johnson shouldn't have to defend being great. He certainly shouldn't have to hear fellow competitors say it would be best for the sport if somebody else won the title.
Do you think Harvick would say that if he'd won four straight?
"If I had won four straight I'd be sitting in the same spot he is," Harvick said. "I wouldn't give a crap what anybody thought."
He wasn't joking.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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