Drivers follow leader
MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Jimmie Johnson has won four consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup titles and is leading the way again midway through the 10-race Chase for the Championship.
With five races remaining and just a 41-point advantage over Denny Hamlin heading in today’s race at Martinsville Speedway, Johnson said the race is far from over. Even so, drivers who covet the title can only marvel at the seeming inevitability of his success.
No other driver has won four consecutive championships in NASCAR’s top series, and Cale Yarborough is the only other driver to win three in a row, from 1976-78.
“It’s just pretty amazing. I guess there are a lot of other words for it, but it’s amazing,’’ Roush Fenway Racing driver Carl Edwards said. “To be able to constantly perform at that level is the thing that’s pretty spectacular to me. We’ve just got to go beat them.’’
Edwards and everyone else have been trying for five years, and while Johnson said he becomes more relaxed each time he runs toward the title, others study how he races.
“Their ability to overcome hurdles during the race is what separates them from everybody else,’’ said Kurt Busch, who won the championship in 2004 and hasn’t finished better than fourth since. “At the beginning of the Charlotte race last week, he spins out all on his own off of Turn 2, an ill-handling race car. They work on it and end up with a top five.
“We had the same scenario at Charlotte with a race-winning setup that won the race in May and we limped home to a 30th-place finish. That’s not going to cut it to win championships.’’
Clint Bowyer, asked about a growing sense among fans that Johnson’s fifth title is a foregone conclusion, said that sentiment would make sense based on recent history.
“The public can sit in the stands and watch him do it for four years in a row,’’ Bowyer said. “If you think about it, that’s a long time, that is a lot of races.’’
Johnson, who races for Hendrick Motorsports, has won 35 of the 175 races run since 2006, the year of his first championship. He’s won 13 of those during the 10-race playoffs that end each season.
“I hope somebody beats them for my sake and for being in this sport — and I love Jimmie Johnson,’’ Bowyer said. “He’s a great guy. I enjoy hanging out with him off the racetrack, but by no means do I want him to win this championship. I think it’s bad for everybody.’’
Including, for sure, veteran drivers who have always come up a little short.
“I’m not one of those guys that believes they have lucked into it,’’ said Jeff Burton, who finished in the top five in points for four consecutive years from 1997-2000. “I know how hard it is because I have been trying to do it for 16 years and haven’t been able to do it and they’ve done four in a row. That is an unbelievable feat.’’