Gordon Kirby

Talent is not enough

Regardless of what you may think about NASCAR, its field is much deeper than in any other major racing category. There are many competitive cars and drivers, which makes winning a championship very demanding. So to win five in a row is really something, yet Jimmie Johnson has done exactly that as well as recording a record 10th title for the mighty Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team.
Johnson fought with title rivals Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick through the final laps of the season-closer at HomesteadMiami in November. He finished second to Carl Edwards, with Harvick third and Hamlin 14th after a variety of adventures, so Jimmie beat Hamlin by 39 points with Harvick another two behind.
Johnson says his fifth title was the most difficult. "In other years the speed came a little easier," he admitted. "This year we had to look under every freaking rock to try to find speed. That's been a challenge for sure. But this is very rewarding, very satisfying. It's the product of a great team and fantastic teamwork."
Johnson is the class of today's field and is on a path to becoming one of NASCAR's greatest drivers in company with seven-time champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. He's a cool customer who works superbly with crew chief Chad Knaus to get their car best suited to the changing track conditions which occur over 400and 500-mile oval races. Jimmie is also a tremendous driver, capable of hanging onto a loose or oversteering car as well as making impressive passes in crowded quarters.
But Johnson's remarkable feat has been overshadowed to some degree by a steady decline in NASCAR crowds and TV ratings over the past three years. TV ratings are down between 10 and 15 per cent for most races, and no fewer than 100,000 seats were unoccupied at July's Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. Every NASCAR track, including Charlotte in the heart of North Carolina's stock car country and the legendary half-mile Bristol bullring in the mountains of Tennessee, are struggling with slow ticket sales.
What's it all about? The economy, definitely. Many traditional NASCAR fans have had to tighten their belts or have lost their jobs. Instead of going to multiple races each year they can no longer afford any. Another key item is the 'Car of Tomorrow', the unloved spec car introduced in 2008 which has drained NASCAR's traditional Ford vs Chevrolet vs Dodge flavour. Many disaffected fans also complain that today's drivers have become pitchmen for their sponsors and very good ones, too, in many cases rather than heroic drivers in the tradition of Earnhardt, Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers.
While all these legends were Southerners born and bred, many of today's stars are from outside the South. Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon are classic examples, both hailing from California who maintain second homes in New York City. Frequently Johnson is accused of being too 'vanilla', a nice guy who rarely loses his cool. He grew up in a humble blue-collar home in rural California. His father was a construction equipment operator and his mother drove a school bus, but Johnson is a refined, thoughtful fellow who doesn't connect with most NASCAR fans.
NASCAR's most popular driver by far is Dale Earnhardt Jr, a true Carolina man in speech and manner, who has been conspicuously uncompetitive in the past two years. Dale Jr hoped to revive his flagging career when he joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, teamed with Johnson, Gordon and Mark Martin, but he finished 25th and 21st in the Sprint Cup points in 2009-10.
Still, NASCAR boss Brian France remains sanguine about his organisation's future: "We're working on all kinds of things to see what is a better formula for us. But we have a very strong fan base and if we keep the racing as good as it's been the last half of the season, and we do our jobs right, I'm not worried about the popularity of this sport." Here's hoping he's right.