Johnson's backlash, Chase changes and more mailbag
Fans can't lay the blame of declining ratings, attendance on Jimmie Johnson
Johnson was able to handle to pressure and trash talk from his Chase rivals
Lack of transparency in NASCAR has only heightened resentment over the Chase
Let's start this mailbag with one of the most exclusive lists in all of sports. Here are the five-time consecutive champions in each of the four major sports and NASCAR since the late 19th century:
- New York Yankees, 1949-53 (MLB)
- Montreal Canadiens, 1956-60 (NHL)
- Boston Celtics, 1958-66 (NBA)
- Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2006-10
Notice there isn't any team from the NFL, because none have achieved that benchmark. Let's move on to the list in racing (cars and bikes):
- Richie Evans, NASCAR Modified Champ 1978-85
- Steve Kinser, World Of Outlaw Sprint Cars 1983-88, 1990-94
- Bob Glidden, NHRA Pro Stock 1985-89
- Miguel Indurain, Tour de France 1991-95
- John Force, NHRA Funny Car 1993-2002
- Lance Armstrong, Tour de France 1999-2005
- Tony Schumacher, NHRA Top Fuel 2004-09
- Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2006-10
That's only 11 names and teams in over 100 years of professional competition for many of these sports. Should Johnson win a sixth-straight title, as he's already heavily favored to do, four of these names disappear off the list, leaving him one of seven men and teams to remain part of the club.
I present this information because plenty of tweets, comments and criticism surrounding NASCAR nation have revolved around the Jimmie Johnson "backlash." The final straw for already exasperated fans was when former driving legends Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison called him the "best ever" this weekend, inciting panic over those who have spent 60 years worshipping Richard Petty, the sport's "King." Crew chief Chad Knaus is a cheater, they say. Rick Hendrick has more money than anyone else. This playoff system presents the perfect opportunity for Johnson to succeed over all others.
But is their anger misguided? Declining TV and attendance ratings would still be present even if Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick won this year's title. Johnson didn't come up with the Chase format, nor the multi-car system he fits within that gives Hendrick, Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs a leg up. Sure, Chad Knaus has cheated and was disciplined multiple times for his mistakes. But on paper, the man hasn't been caught with a serious NASCAR violation in three years. Once a cheater, always a cheater, I know, but don't you think at some point, another team, another driver would put the hammer down and reveal the man as guilty, guilty, guilty?
Even if Knaus is a mastermind mechanic, you still have to employ a man behind the wheel who matches that talent. And looking at just 2010 through a microscope, it was Johnson, not Knaus, carrying this team on his back during a year where all of Hendrick Motorsports struggled (zero wins outside the No. 48). While the crew chief was distracted by a poor-performing pit crew, ultimately leading to a swap with Jeff Gordon's No. 24 car at Texas and beyond, his answer multiple times on the radio in various races was equivalent to, "Jimmie, there's nothing more I can do." It was Johnson, not Knaus, who drove back from outside the top 30 to finish third at Charlotte after spinning out. It was Johnson who dug deep at Martinsville, recovering from the worst setup the No. 48 had in years to finish fifth. And it was Johnson who, after Denny Hamlin and Mike Ford played a little trash talking after Texas, used his strategy and experience, remaining relaxed while watching his challengers ultimately capitulate while playing the role of defense.
No, I'm not saying Johnson is the best race car driver ever. I'm not saying his title is good for a sport in which fan after fan is exasperated by his politically correct, say-all-the-right-things-when-the-camera-is-rolling personality. I'm not even saying the man could repeat without the right type of support system around him. But neither could Richard Petty nor Dale Earnhardt, right? The last time I checked, all drivers have had crew chiefs since the beginning of time, turning the wrench a complementary job with turning the wheel.
So no, you don't have to like Jimmie Johnson. Hate him and Hendrick if you choose. But the bottom line is that personalities don't determine whether drivers become Hall of Fame participants, statistics do. And at this point, Johnson is putting up the type of once-in-a-generation moments that are deserving of everyone's basic respect and admiration, not reports of fraud from a fan base hiding in between thinly veiled insults. This 2009 AP Male Athlete of the year could easily win back-to-back in 2010, another feat that's been achieved by only a handful of men.
It's just a shame only a handful of fans won't spend the next "48" hours trying not to spit on this impressive accomplishment, no matter how you spin it. For in this world, hatred toward other aspects of the sport has turned the feats of this man into a trial of guilty before proven innocent.
Time to get into your questions and comments. Reminder: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @NASCARBowles is how to keep in touch. The NASCAR season may be over, but this mailbag will keep on chugging every Tuesday ...
After reading your story on the No. 48, no he did not win a fifth title, it was given to him! He did indeed speed during a pit stop, and as usual NASCAR did nothing! Sure Hamlin and Harvick made mistakes, but the fact is the No. 48 was speeding during a pit stop! NASCAR has become such a joke. I, for one, will never watch or attend another NASCAR event. The Chase is a joke, and it needs to be changed. Thanks for the worst "sport."
-- Ron Black. Monroe, Ind.
Ron's referring to a claim by Kevin Harvick on the radio, spit out by a crewman just moments after the No. 29 car was penalized for speeding.
Unidentified man on radio: "TV showed the 48 speeding a stop ago and they didn't do nothing about it."
Harvick: "That ain't right."
(after penalty, a few moments later)
Richard Childress: "We still have enough time to come back and get it. If that's the way they [NASCAR] want to play it, we'll come back and get it."
The reaction within the Harvick camp is understandable, considering you want a championship decided on the race track instead of by NASCAR officials. But here's the problem with these claims for both fans and drivers: there's no transparency. In the NFL, when this type of major penalty comes out there are video replays clearly showcasing the type of infraction, why and when it happened. For NASCAR, only a handful of people get to see the pit road times, and they're not released to the public at the time of the infraction. So, often, fans are left to simply "trust" the judgment of a sanctioning body even after years of questionable decisions in the booth.
"I don't think that penalty will ever settle in my stomach," Harvick said later. "When you read me off of my pit road times of 49.6, 49.4 50.8 and then 49.6; and there's only a handful people that get to see them, I won't ever settle for that."
"I don't know how you can be speeding when you're on the bumper in front of you if the other guy is not speeding. So that's about it."
Of course, that type of anger would be present whether it was a race win or a championship at stake. Everyone thinks that Johnson gets preferential treatment because he never endures these types of penalties. But could it be that the No. 48 car is just better?
The answer, sadly, is we'll never know because a way for the public to judge whether a driver is speeding isn't in front of us. That's a horrible answer for a call that, if the No. 48 and Johnson faltered late, could have decided the championship between Hamlin and Harvick. I've made this point before, but it can't be stressed enough: the longer NASCAR keeps their stats to themselves, the more fans upset with the way these penalties are called will look elsewhere for their racing fix.
Johnson wins five. Another reason why NASCAR will lose even more fans in the stands and at home in 2011.
-- Chris Hebeler, St. Louis
You'd assume that based on past years, Chris, although here's an interesting twist: NASCAR's finale scored a 3.3 rating, matching the number of viewers from last season while seeing a 33 percent jump in the 18-to-34 male demographic. The overall rating number was down eight percent, but that's a clear jump from the 20-to-25 percent decline posted during most of the other nine events during the playoffs.
What do we take from it? It's clear that when building toward a "Game 7" type of finale, even fans disappointed with the Chase will turn around and tune in to that special moment. But having the equivalent of the San Antonio Spurs as your champion personality-wise -- again -- isn't going to be a marketable way to sell your sport heading into 2011. I think it won't be the Johnson five-peat, though, as much as the dearth of challengers standing in his way for No. 6, that'll be the problem. I expect Hamlin to take a step back, along with Harvick, and only the Ford camp of Roush-Fenway Racing to stand in the way of a No. 48 Chevy that actually had an "off year" in 2011. And if they can win the title when they're not at 100 percent ... it could be a scary world in NASCAR this time next year. Someone, somewhere has to figure out the solution to knocking these guys off their perch.
Am I the only one who thinks Jimmie Johnson is a punk with his comment about "I sure hope Hamlin's team doesn't crack under the pressure," considering his pit crew did crack and he had to steal Gordon's pit crew to keep him from falling out of the Chase?
-- Tim Weaver, Las Vegas, Nev.
Good point, Tim. Hendrick Motorsports does have a lot of offseason work to do, as Johnson's off year meant he needed to drain every resource from the behemoth four-car operation to pull this one off. It should be noted, though, that the Gordon-for-Johnson pit crew swap was kind of a wash. Gordon's crew had several bad stops in the No. 48 camp Sunday, including one that briefly put them behind Denny Hamlin on the race track. A net loss of six spots through the team's first three stops of the day, wasn't exactly what Knaus was looking for to acquire that extra "boost" toward a title ...
As for the mental games, I'd actually say the advantage goes to Johnson and the way in which he handled the press and his rivals down the stretch. Hamlin was a nervous wreck before getting in the car on Sunday, the pressure of the title getting to him while Johnson's breadth of experience left him immune to any barbs crew chief Mike Ford or Hamlin threw. In fact, you could say Ford's trash talking actually did the duo a disservice, stirring Knaus into action after Texas. In his post-race presser Sunday, Knaus' demeanor changed so dramatically when talking about Ford I actually stopped writing my article, turned around to see those facial expressions.
"I think our team and our organization is better than what they have got at Gibbs," Knaus said. "Just the facts. I didn't appreciate the way that they said that we were selfish and inconsiderate to the guys on our team when we had to pull them, and I wanted to make sure that this championship is not about that decision that was made in Texas in the middle of the race or the decision that was made the Monday after Texas, because that's not what it was.
"This decision was made by Steve Letarte and myself in December of last year saying that we were going to win the championship out of the 24/48 building, and we were going to do whatever it took. We operate in that building as a single unit, we field two cars for two great drivers and we are going to do whatever we can to win as many races and as many championships out of that building as possible. We work for the organization. We work for the team because there's 520-something people that work at Hendrick Motorsports, and we have a responsibility to them to do what's right; if he can't see that or if they can't see that, then they aren't a team."
It was a jolt of anger still evident, in the midst of a championship celebration, that tells me Ford and Hamlin might do better next time by keeping their mouths shut.
I wonder if they would have penalized Harvick had he not run over a crew member for the No. 83 on the way out of his pit box.
-- Brenda, Orange City, Fla.
Interesting point. I'm sure the NASCAR brass was more tuned in to those pit times after the hubbub surrounding Harvick knocking down a tire guy. But the way I understand it, speeding penalties are supposed to be an automatic trigger that comes straight to the tower. A list of times and average speeds per scoring loop get sent to officials, in a way where any type of egregious violation is noted on the sheet. It's really not that hard to figure out, supposedly, and I doubt there was any extra venom derived from a driver hitting a crewman in the pits. Accidents happen, sadly, and it's a risk you take the second you jump over the pit wall.
P.S. -- See Tweet of the Week below for an update on the crew member's condition.
It's obvious the fans don't like the contrived nature of the Chase. They created a system to try and create drama and intrigue instead of letting the sport play itself out. They call late-race cautions to bring the field back together, again to try and create drama. People who know and love NASCAR know they are being sold a bill of goods. Attendance is down, souvenir purchases are down, TV ratings are down. NASCAR took a good thing and made it worse.
-- Mark, Atlanta
This argument came up several times over the course of the Chase, again the result of NASCAR shooting itself in the foot. If they didn't throw mystery debris cautions in a handful of races, then fans wouldn't go all "conspiracy theory" and feel the entire Sprint Cup championship is contrived. That, more than anything else, helps fuel the anti-Johnson sentiment because it pushed a general feeling NASCAR officials are in control of a race's outcome. It provides fuel to the fire of those who feel their "manipulation" is "all too perfect" so Johnson and owner Rick Hendrick can come out victorious.
But let me ask you this much, Mark. If the sport was, indeed, controlling these endings, wouldn't Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick be a better fit as this year's champion? Why not a late-race debris caution late in the Phoenix race, or at Homestead for that matter to benefit Hamlin? It's not like Johnson lovers are coming out and saying they're attending eight to 10 more races this year because they're interested in their driver winning six straight. The driver, from a media (and business) perspective has become a tired name, so you'd think those "controlling" the winners and losers would have a better feel on how to make money.
The response to that I always get from fans is Hendrick and NASCAR officials have a pretty sweet deal on the side. Man, I'd love to know how much money that is if you're right, because the amount of money they share is likely negated by the loss in revenue of an unpopular championship that could further alienate the fan base.
Bottom line: conspiracy my you-know-what. As for the Chase ... we'll save that one for after the holiday, too much to stuff into this week's edition. But I'd be remiss to take off without our out-of-left-field email of the week ...
Could you please tell me how I could get in contact with Carl Edwards or someone who could get me an autographed photo of him? I am an Avon Representative and Avon has just launched a new fragrance, Turn 4XT by Carl Edwards. I will be happy to send you a bottle of Turn 4XT. It really smells good and is going over great. Louisiana is NASCAR fanatics!
-- Patsy Hull, Farmerville, La.
I happily responded to Patsy with the information she needed, thinking the end of that email was just a joke. But lo and behold, I got home from Homestead-Miami and what was sitting on my doorstep: a bottle of Turn 4XT cologne!
What a perfect gift for the end of the season and the return of something all of us strive for: free time and a social life I'm happy to resume this week. Happy Thanksgiving, and thanks for reading all year! Hope you're spending it with the family and friends you care about the most.
"Champions party last night was pretty tame. LOUD. We didn't stay out late. Must be getting too old?" - @brianlvickers, whose longtime friend Jimmie Johnson had him as a special guest for the fifth-straight-championship festivities in Homestead, Fla.
"#83 changer is ok. Will be released from hospital today & travel back home to NC. Has fractures of his lumbar spine. No surgery needed. Glad to hear Chuck is doing good. Hate it when guys on pit road get hit. 3,300 lb car against 150 lb person. Not good." - @kaseykahne, updating the status of Chuck Efaw, his rear tire changer who was hit by Kevin Harvick on pit road Sunday.
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