Jimmie Johnson won his third consecutive Sprint Cup title on Sunday, tying him with Cale Yarborough as the only drivers in the history of the sport to be able to string together three consecutive titles. The magnitude of such an accomplishment is made even greater when you look back at some of the great champions, including Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty, who only had back-to-back title runs.
Yarborough posted his three years of dominance in the 70’s (’76, ’77, ’78). That makes it extremely hard to compare to Johnson’s present day three-year run. Cale came through when the driver had to literally get up on the wheel and drive the car around the track. Winning, in many cases then, meant nothing more than surviving as the era of big time sponsorship dollars was yet to invade the sport. There was no Chase to try and figure out, just a very long schedule that rewarded the driver’s consistency over a tough, demanding season.
Johnson’s path to his three titles was no easier, but it did come under a different point system that demanded a driver had to put together a great 26-race schedule in order to get the op portunity to race for the title in the season’s final 10-race stretch known as the Chase. The Chase is all about handling pressure, and nobody over the last three seasons has done it better than Johnson and his record setting crew chief, Chad Knaus. (Yarborough didn’t have the same crew chief for all three titles.)
There is little reason not to believe that Johnson and Knaus will break their own mark next season and go on and win their fourth consecutive title. It seems that all the two have to do is to get into the Chase next season and from there their experience will take over. During their unbelievable three-year run they have won eight of the 30 Chase races. If winning alone doesn’t improve your chances of winning the title, then take a look at their consistency record. Their 15th place finish at Homestead on Sunday was only the second race of the Chase in which they finished outside of the top 10, but even with those two finishes they posted an average finish of 6th — two spots higher than runnerup Carl Edwards’s average finish of 8th.
Johnson’s third straight title run also extends the dominance of owner Rich Hendrick in NASCAR. His third title gives Hendrick a total of eight when combined with Jeff Gordon’s four championships (1995, ’97, ’98, 2001) and Terry Labonte’s 1996 crown.
Gordon, who was seventh in this season’s Chase, will always be considered one of the favorites to win his fifth titel when a new season begins, but Johnson’s remarkable start to his career now makes him the real favorite long before the green flag waves next February at Daytona. He has raced full-time in the series since 2002. Since that time he has finished no lower than fifth in the final point standings. Three titles, two runner-up finishes and a couple of fifth place finishes is not a bad start to a career. In fact, it’s not a bad career!
Johnson will defend his title next season in what is expected to be a much different Sprint Cup Series. The same economic problems that are facing our country are hitting our sport hard. There has been much talk over the last couple of weeks about the possibility of one or several of the manufacturers being forced to pull their support from the sport. If that does happen, it will be tough on the teams that rely so heavily on the dollars that come from Detroit in the form of research and development, parts and technical advisors.
The economic downswing will also have a direct bearing on the number of cars that attempt to qualify next season. This year there were 53 cars that attempted to qualify at Daytona, but next season there might not even be enough cars to fill the 43-car field for a race. At the present time, fewer than 30 teams have secured enough full-time sponsors to race the entire 2009 schedule. Many of those teams that do have sponsorship for the entire season have had to sell their season in part-time packages, as there just aren’t many companies that can come up with the kind of cash that it takes to sponsor a car for the entire season.