Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Jimmie Johnson’s worst Cup season could start new era in NASCAR

Jimmie Johnson’s five-year championship run will likely end this year, and compared to the lofty standards Johnson has set, it will come crashing to an end.

Johnson visited Victory Lane just twice this season. While many drivers would love to have two wins in a season, two wins is a disappointment for the #48 team that has won at least three races and finished no lower than fifth in the standings during Johnson’s nine full seasons.

Wins aren’t everything in NASCAR. Just ask potential champion Carl Edwards, who could win the championship with one win on the season and none in the Chase. But, Johnson and the #48 team have not performed at the same level this year as they have for nearly the past decade and currently sit sixth in the points standings. The only race Johnson dominated this year was his win at Kansas Speedway in October.

For the last nine years, Johnson has been what Jeff Gordon was to the sport during the mid to late 90s. He won a lot, but he also tended to stink up the show in the races he won.

Johnson has also struggled compared to his career norm in categories other than wins. He has 14 top-five finishes and 21 top-10 finishes, which are both close to career lows. He also hasn’t sat on the pole once this season, another feat he has accomplished at least once in every season of his career.

Instead of a bunch of wins, Johnson has finished second or third eight times this year.

In the past, Johnson has been able to turn second- and third-place finishes into victories. Several of his wins would come on weekends where he qualified either on the pole or in the top five, and he would generally be on top of the speed charts in all of the practice sessions leading up to the race.

Those were the weekends where it felt like the race was just a formality to make his Victory Lane celebration official.

Now the championship streak is all but over, and it is amazing how fast the car that might as well have been painted in gold the last five years can start to look flawed. The #48 team’s pit stops have been inconsistent at best for much of the year, the setups have not been spot on and Johnson has been involved in several incidents late in the season that he usually gets out of the way before the Chase rolls around.

Johnson will be a championship contender for years to come, but we may have seen the end of his dominant days. Gordon looked unbeatable for nearly a decade, as well, but he since has struggled to be a consistent championship threat.

There doesn’t appear to be a steady, young driver that is ready to take Johnson’s place as the next dominant driver in the sport, so maybe the next few years will have one of the things the Chase was designed to accomplish in the first place: a little bit of parity.

NASCAR had a different champion in six of the seven years immediately before it implemented the Chase format. It can happen in NASCAR; it’s just been so long ago that many people have forgotten what life was like before Johnson’s championships.

It will look a little weird Nov. 20 to have somebody not in a Lowe’s firesuit raise the Sprint Cup Series trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but there’s a chance that could be the new normal.

1 comment: