As we head into the final race of the Chase, it's unusual to think that, for the first time in the eight seasons of the playoff system, Jimmie Johnson doesn't have a shot at taking home the Sprint Cup title. Johnson's run of five consecutive titles is the most impressive accomplishment I've seen in my 45 years.
Because we are witnessing his success in real time, I don't think a lot of people can properly put it into perspective. Like the Celtics and UCLA runs that are remembered so fondly now, people will respect and recognize Johnson's domination more 20 years from now than today.
But not me.
I realize firsthand how difficult it is to win a race, let alone 55, and although I've never won the Sprint Cup title, I recognize that consecutive titles are more difficult because of the distraction associated with representing the championship.
My attitude has always been that distraction is poison for athletes. And there's an abundance of distraction associated with winning a championship. Whether it's Regis and Kelly or going to different sponsorship commitments, it's a lot of time spent away from doing the types of things that help you become a better race car driver: contributing to team building, quality time with your crew members, etc. Before you know it, it's February and you're not prepared for the upcoming season.
Johnson has never fallen victim to this theory.
He once told me that he has this inner mechanism to know when to shut it down and focus. It might have cost him money or more of a distinct identity outside the motorsports community, but he wouldn't allow it to cost him a championship. He still prepares harder than any other driver in the sport. And I really admire that.
At every track, there are certain positions where drivers are vulnerable. Like getting underneath someone on a corner entry on a 1.5-mile track, for example. You don't have the grip -- or security -- that you have making that corner by yourself, and you certainly don't have the room for recovery. Yet Jimmie Johnson has pulled that move off for years, with success. It didn't work for him at Charlotte this year when he tried passing Ryan Newman and ended up spinning and hitting the wall. But he is willing to go places and put himself in these positions because he has the confidence to get himself out of it.
In 2007 at Texas, he could have taken the conservative approach, settled for a second-place finish to Matt Kenseth and "points raced" his way to a second title. But it's not in Johnson's DNA to coast. Turn 2 at Texas is one of the most difficult turns in the sport because the track flattens out very aggressively and the car will either drift toward the wall or, if you're attempting to make a pass, you'll put more steering into it, which will snap the back of the car loose. I'll never forget Johnson sliding off the corner and completing the pass to beat Kenseth and win that race. It was one of those moments when I was in awe of his capacity to control his race car, along with his willingness to lay it all on the line. That demonstration by Johnson has been repeated instinctively, race after race, year after year.
But Johnson's success is about more than his physical abilities. Preparation, focus and professionalism all contributed to where he is today.
In my role as a TV analyst, it's not uncommon that I reach out to a half dozen or more drivers on a Monday. Jimmie Johnson will always get back to me first, regardless of circumstances. And I've heard this from people across the board. It's impressive that a five-time champ is so accommodating.
You hear people talk all the time about how Johnson's run wasn't good for the sport, how crowning a new champion this year is just what NASCAR needed.
But I'm a purist. I appreciate that it's a business and that every business has a bottom line. But having driven for 25 years, I'm more interested in capturing the enormity of a driver dominating NASCAR in arguably its most competitive era.
Often, comparisons are made to put accomplishments in perspective. So here we go.
In nine straight seasons (going for 10 this weekend), Jimmie Johnson has never finished outside the top five in the standings. Kyle Busch has one top-five finish in seven seasons; Carl Edwards is closing in on his fourth and Tony Stewart his fifth.
Johnson has 55 wins in his full-time Cup career. In that same time span, the second best is Stewart with 31.
And, of course, the most consecutive championships by any other Cup series driver was Cale Yarborough with three.
I'm not going to argue that Jimmie Johnson is the best ever because I'm logical enough to know the resistance against comparing him to Earnhardt or Petty. It's an exercise in futility. However, I'll bet that, 20 years removed, the comparisons will be made.
That's the value that time gives sports' most impressive athletes.
Ricky Craven is a driver with wins in all of NASCAR's top three series, including rookie of the year titles in the 1992 Nationwide Series and 1995 Cup series. He serves as a NASCAR analyst on ESPN studio programs.