It wasn’t a single moment that caught my eye this year. It was watching a pair of relentless, season-long efforts by Jimmie Johnson and Scott Dixon and their teams on the way to winning the year’s NASCAR and IndyCar championships.
With little fanfare outside the inward-looking environments of their respective motor sport disciplines Johnson and Dixon have emerged as multiple champions over a 10-year stretch. They’ve done it by being fast on all types of tracks and by showing tremendous resilience as well as gentlemanly, understated styles. In today’s über-hyped sporting world, Johnson and Dixon are what we in America call class acts.
Neither Johnson nor Dixon have dominated like Sebastian Vettel in F1 because it’s simply not in the nature of either of NASCAR or IndyCar’s formula to produce F1-style domination. But both possess all of Vettel’s considerable talent and maybe more.
Johnson has won six championships and 66 races in 435 starts over 12 years in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup series. Dixon has won three championships and 31 races from 220 starts over 13 CART and IndyCar seasons.
Jimmie and Scott are also gentlemen and genuine nice guys. Some have complained that they are too nice, too anodyne, and suggest the decline in interest in both NASCAR and IndyCar is their fault. But that’s a narrow-minded if not silly view.
Johnson was the man to beat in NASCAR most of this year, challenged primarily by Matt Kenseth, while Dixon looked out of the championship stakes after Indianapolis but fought back superbly to steal the IndyCar title from Hélio Castroneves over the season’s closing races.
Of course, both Johnson and Dixon have great teams behind them. Hendrick Motorsports has won 11 Sprint Cup championships since 1995 and Chip Ganassi’s team has won 10 IndyCar titles in the same period. Rick Hendrick started his team in 1984 and Ganassi began his career as a team owner in 1990.
Today, Hendrick Motorsports is NASCAR’s biggest operation employing more than 500 people and running four Chevrolets for Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Kasey Kahne. Hendrick builds its own cars and engines and also supplies Tony Stewart’s multi-car team and a handful of lesser teams with cars and engines.
Ganassi runs teams these days in IndyCar, Grand-Am sports cars and NASCAR. The IndyCar and sports car teams are based together in Indianapolis while the NASCAR team is located in North Carolina. Ganassi employs around 100 people in Indianapolis and has run three or four Indycars in recent years. He plans to run four cars next year and two sports cars in the new Tudor United SportsCar series as well as a pair of NASCAR Sprint Cup cars.
Johnson is 38 and Dixon only 33. Both believe they have many years ahead of them and are sure to be in the thick of it next year, like Vettel, fighting to defend their championships.