Why I’m not heaping praise on Jimmie Johnson

Another year has come and gone, and with it another year of Jimmie Johnson winning the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Oh, it was tougher this year, but it’s now five straight, two more consecutive Sprint Cup championships than any other driver in NASCAR history. And with it has come another round of NASCAR pundits telling us to respect Jimmie Johnson as one of the all-time greats. And why aren’t we respecting Jimmie Johnson? Apparently, because we just want someone else to win. I still seem to be the only one (admittedly, not very vocal about it) who wonders if the change in format to the Chase system – instituted just two years before the start of the streak – means Johnson’s championships aren’t directly comparable to the Cale Yarboroughs and Richard Pettys and Dale Earnhardts. In the past, I’ve wondered if Johnson’s dominance wasn’t the result of NASCAR booking an unbalanced selection of Chase tracks that virtually assured Johnson’s victory every year, but it’s hard to make that case (though Wikipedia tries). You have regular ovals, short tracks, even Talladega Superspeedway (though not a road course).

But the ESPN commentators said something on Sunday that gave me an epiphany. It’s not the Chase tracks. It’s the Chase itself.

The ESPN commentators said something about how grueling the NASCAR season is and how tough it is to maintain that consistency over the course of the year, and to keep up that consistency for year after year after year. Yes, we should congratulate Jimmie Johnson for maintaining his consistency over the 36 races of the NASCAR season… except NASCAR has effectively shortened its season to 10 races! All Johnson has to do is be good enough to be one of the top 12 drivers over the first 26 races, not a particularly high bar (though admittedly he’s the only one to make every Chase), and only be the best over the course of the last 10 races.

It’s incredible. At the start of the 20th century, no sport in the United States had a playoff system as such. It wasn’t until the 40s, 50s, and 60s that most sports started developing the multi-round playoff structures we’re familiar with today. Now we’re shoehorning playoffs into sports they can’t possibly fit, where everyone competes in every event. NASCAR and golf wanted to attract the casual sports fan who’s familiar with the playoff systems of the traditional Big Four professional sports and college basketball – the fans of what they used to deride as “stick-and-ball sports”. They made their deal with the devil. But did they really want to?

Get a good look at your future, NASCAR fans. You can write off Jimmie Johnson’s dominance with “well, he’s just that good” now. But in a few years, even decades, once Jimmie Johnson has fallen off and retired, will you start to see multi-year dynasties become the norm in NASCAR? Will four- or five-year runs at the top become passe? Will the past, when it took a truly great driver just to repeat, give way to a future where the list of champions looks more and more like its own past entries, and where at the very least Cale Yarborough’s three-peat starts being disrespected? Which future do NASCAR fans want to live in?

If you want to avert that future, I don’t know what NASCAR should do. I don’t think it was a mistake for the PGA TOUR to introduce its own points system in imitation of the Chase – before the FedExCup it didn’t have a season championship to speak of – and frankly the TOUR’s “Playoffs” has so few events that inconsistency in the winners is more likely than in the Chase. Probably the solution is to go back to the old system where there was no cutoff and no points reset; every race was the same as every other race in terms of determining the champion – or maybe just have a restrictive cutoff without a reset. Or if it really wants to have a “playoff”, perhaps NASCAR should institute a “championship race” of just 10-20 drivers, with no qualifying session and start order determined on points or wins (with the other category as a tiebreaker), that rotates from track to track every year, and the winner of that race is automatically your Sprint Cup Champion.

But if NASCAR really wants to attract the casual fan, they may be doomed to failure for this simple reason: While Jimmie Johnson was winning his fifth title in dramatic fashion, more people were watching the Vikings and the Packers. As long as the Sprint Cup Championship is crowned in the midst of football season, it will always seem anticlimactic.

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