Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Team Jimmie/Chad: NASCAR's N.Y. Yankees?

Sacramento, California – Can you hear that sound emanating from NASCAR’s racetracks?

No, it’s not the sound of roaring engines.

It’s the sound of growing resentment and concern that driver Jimmie Johnson and his Lowe’s Chevy team headed by crew chief Chad Knaus are dominating way too much. They’re becoming the New York Yankees of NASCAR, a team so dominant that even longtime, loyal fans are starting to root against them.

Johnson won a fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup title last year and is well on his way in his Drive For Five.

After his near-customary poor finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, Johnson won the next two events in Fontana, California, and Las Vegas. In Fontana, race luck helped Johnson take the checkered flag first. In Vegas, a great late-race pit stop call for four tires helped Johnson speed past teammate Jeff Gordon, who had dominated the event until the late-going.

The signs of a growing “anybody but Jimmie” movement were evident from the competition after the checkers waved in Las Vegas.

“We can run with them, and they know it,” said driver Kevin Harvick, who leads the series points standings right now. (Johnson has jumped up to fifth after his dismal Daytona outing.)

Well, maybe.

Harvick has not demonstrated the ability to maintain top-points-paying positions throughout NASCAR’s ridiculously long season. Anything can happen of course, but with Johnson’s proven ability to win or finish high over 10 months year after year, the smart betting money is on Johnson.

Harvick apparently is pondering a full-season run at NASCAR’s Nationwide Series title, and I’m not sure that’s a good plan if you truly want to concentrate on catching Johnson in NASCAR’s varsity level. I’d be studying up on the NASCAR Chase tracks and getting all the test time I could to put a dent in Johnson’s plans.

Even then, I’m not sure it’s going to work. Johnson and Knaus are in a once-in-a-lifetime groove. They know how to race every track, and to Johnson’s credit, he knows when to push it and not push it. Rarely is Johnson caught out in a senseless early-race duel. If he can pick up points leading throughout a race in a superior car, fine. If not, no problem.

How many times have you seen Johnson post a top-five finish in a car that ran most of the race in 10th place or worse? Too many for me to remember.

Johnson’s teammate, Gordon, must be chuckling. He remembers when he was winning so often that he led the league in crowd boos when he was introduced before a race. After last week, when Gordon saw a much-deserved win snatched away, you have to wonder if fans will start rooting for Gordon to beat Jimmie.

It’s happened before. Darrell Waltrip went from NASCAR fans’ public enemy No. 1 early in his driving career to “good ol’ D.W.” late in his run. Those good feelings linger today.

For his part, Johnson is his usual unflappable self.

“We don’t feel invincible,” he said simply after his Las Vegas win.

Neither do the Yankees, but it sure helps when you have an all-star lineup laced with multimillion-dollar wage earners.

Break up Team Jimmie/Chad?

I don’t think so. Let’s see how far they can make this run into history.

Boo them if you wish. But respect what they’re doing.

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