Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Don't Look Now ...

... but here comes Jimmie Johnson.

It's almost like clockwork, the way Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 team assert themselves in the final 10 races of the Sprint Cup season, even after everyone's written them off and deemed someone else "the favorite." This year, the favorite is Denny Hamlin (who, to be fair, is still the points leader) and Johnson had his share of "regular season" struggles that led everyone to think this might be the year someone unseats him.

Then Dover happened.

Johnson spanked the field at Dover International Speedway on Sunday, leading the most laps in winning his sixth race of the season. The Monster Mile is Johnson's personal playground (much like Martinsville and Fontana and Charlotte); he's won there six times -- including three of the last four.

That Johnson won in such dominant fashion at Dover is not surprising. But given the lackluster way in which the No. 48 team opened the Chase in New Hampshire -- struggling to a 25th-place finish -- the team needed a rebound like this. There are still eight races left, including wild card tracks Martinsville and Talladega -- and Hamlin has consistently outperformed Johnson on the intermediate tracks this season, but make no mistake ... the Chase still goes through the No. 48 team, and it will not be taken from that team easily.

There's a reason Johnson is the four-time defending series champion; he and Knaus have mastered the seven-year-old championship format better than any other team, altering NASCAR history in the process. Without the Chase, Johnson would have one championship, maybe two.

Without the Chase, Johnson's mentor, Jeff Gordon, would have six titles and we'd be talking about whether or not he can tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for the most Cup Series championships ever.

Without the Chase, Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards might've won in 2008 -- and Tony Stewart very well could've won it last year in his first year as an owner-driver.

Without the Chase, Kevin Harvick would be well on his way to winning his first Cup Series title, giving car owner Richard Childress his first championship since Earnhardt won his seventh in 1994.

These scenarios make for rousing debate -- particularly among fans who don't like the Chase format -- but I can't help but wonder how much of this is based on Johnson's dominance. If we'd had four different champions over the past four years, would we still see all of this anti-Chase sentiment?

What if Edwards won in 2008? Or Stewart last year? Would we still be crying foul over the Chase? Or are we all getting our collective panties in a bunch because the No. 48 team has figured out how to win the Chase better than anyone else? Is this a case of "Don't hate the player; hate the game"?

Though I'm noticing a lot of hate for both player and game.

Make no mistake; I'm no Johnson fan. But what he's accomplishing can neither be denied nor compared to other great champions in the sport. Petty never had to deal with a Chase, and all four of Gordon's titles were pre-Chase. That's not to say their championships are better or worse than Johnson's; they're just different.

But Johnson has already made history, and if his performance at Dover is any indication, he might just make more. And if any fan wants to let that be the reason he stops watching, then maybe he wasn't really a fan in the first place.

Like it or not, the championship still goes through Jimmie Johnson.

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