Monday, November 28, 2016

An appreciation of greatness in our time

Blogger's note: Due to technical problems at a remote location, this item failed to post last week.  Apologies for the delay.  The sentiments remain sincere -- MG

Sometimes, in sports, we witness greatness but fail to completely appreciate it as it's happening.

As a youngster, I watched Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown run over, around and through tacklers like a wolf among sheep.  Sure, it's what he did, right?

When UCLA was winning seven consecutive NCAA men's basketball championships in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I considered it almost routine.

Now that I'm older, and hopefully wiser, I appreciate what Jimmie Johnson did on Nov. 20 in the fullest possible way.  Seven championships in NASCAR's top-tier series.  SEVEN!

Yes, Richard Petty did it.  Dale Earnhardt did it.  But it's hard to picture them pulling down seven in this NASCAR era that's not only mega-competitive but nearly demands a couple of mind-blowing, lucky breaks along the way.

Can you picture Petty or Earnhardt amassing all those titles under the current Chase format, where a single bad race near the end of the "playoffs" can spell doom to what was otherwise a spectacular year?  I'm not sure I can picture it.

What I have witnessed with Johnson is sustained excellence and off-the-charts mental toughness ... must-have tools in today's playoff format.

Watching the 2016 season-ending race at Homestead Miami Speedway in South Florida, I gave up on Johnson's chances about five times.  Even before the race began, he was shuffled to the back of the field due to post-tech inspection work done on his car.  I figured it would take him half the race to get back near the front.  Instead, his manic drive into the top 10 left him three-quarters of the race to play his hand.

Even so, his car seemed to be the weakest of the four gunning for the championship.  He was consistently trailing Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.  They seemed to have the horsepower, handling edges they needed to keep Johnson stuck on six NASCAR championships.

Repeated adjustments on Johnson's car in the pits made for long stops, and Johnson seemed constantly on the verge of shuffling back into the 15th position.

Yes, Edwards' dive-bomb move on a late restart took him out and did some damage to Logano.  Still, with 10 laps to go, it looked like Johnson was a third seed behind Busch and Logano.

Amazingly, on the last restart, Johnson drove away from everybody.  It was like his car was super-energized.  He even blasted past Elk Grove's Kyle Larson, who had the field covered all day.  It was an amazing thing to see.

But no more amazing than watching Johnson win five championships in a row.  And no more amazing than watching him notch championship No. 6.

The people who follow this sport are now making the right call: We're seeing one of the greatest of all time.  Is title No. 8 coming up next year?  Can Johnson win 10 before he hangs it up?  Based on what I've seen, I think it's possible.  Johnson stays in superior physical shape, and his skills seem, if anything, at their peak at age 41.

It will be interesting to see how far he pushes the envelope over the next few years.  But for now, it's a good time to simply appreciate greatness in our time.

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