5:03 PM EDT, May 14, 2013
Jimmie Johnson remains the most underappreciated five-time champion in professional sports.
You know the NASACAR narrative by now: Personality is too vanilla. Has a crew chief who cheats. He avoids dustups on the track, demeaning the ghosts of great champions like Dale Earnhardt.
But here's the deal: Johnson is once again leading the Sprint Cup championship chase, now 44 points ahead of Carl Edwards.
Johnson has two victories and six top 5s, and just one finish worse than 12th. He just rolls on and on, building momentum after his season-opening victory in Daytona.
But it's not just about him. Compare and contrast Johnson's success with the results of the last two Sprint Cup champions. Tony Stewart failed to defend his title in 2012, and is now in 21st place in the standings. His 15th-place finish at Darlington is actually considered a nice bump in momentum, reflecting Stewart's struggles this season.
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, certainly isn't out of the hunt, currently in seventh place despite a 25-point penalty in Texas. But he has no victories in 11 starts. An even more ominous tidbit is that he has three consecutive finishes of 15th or worse after finishing 32nd at Darlington.
Trend or aberration? We shall see.
The issues for Stewart and Keselowski point to the fact that it's increasingly difficult to defend a title once you've won one. The fact that Johnson won five in a row starting in 2006 and has remained highly competitive the seasons he failed to close is mind-boggling.
So what's the difference between winning a championship and defending one?
"A lot of it depends on how the season starts," Johnson said at the beginning of the year. "If you take off where you left off it's pretty easy and you get accustomed to what being the champion is — the perks that come with it, the notoriety — and then everything kind of blends in.
"But once you are a champion at any point following that when you don't run like you should for a period of time, the questions will come. That is when any driver and team are tested. It just depends on when that moment in time is. … Then the pressure sinks in and your mind starts playing some games on you. Those were moments we just had to learn from and work through."
Stewart couldn't meet the challenge. Keselowski is under pressure to meet those same demands.
Meanwhile, Mr. Consistency continues to ramble on, despite efforts that are underappreciated.
So to review, Johnson is a great driver, has a bunch of championships, is by all accounts a great family man and runs his own charitable foundation.
Certainly a lot to hate there.
Or is that envy?
Gordon keeps rolling
Jeff Gordon didn't get that memo suggesting his best days are behind him and he needs to sign up for AARP membership.
Gordon finished third at Darlington, marking his 300th top-five finish in the sport. He's joins David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Richard Petty as the only drivers to accomplish that feat. Darlington also marked another milestone: his 700th Cup race.
"I wanted the 700th to be a memorable one, and I'm glad it wasn't like last year's memory where we blew two left rear tires back to back," Gordon said. "This was much better than that. Top three, that's fantastic. I mean, we needed this kind of performance, a gutsy performance, for the points as well as to make this one memorable."
Gordon is 88 races away from tying Ricky Rudd's Cup record of 788 consecutive starts. He can accomplish that by closing out this season, and then competing in two more seasons. Gordon would be 44 then and probably on the brink of retirement.
But what a legacy he would leave behind, including four Cup titles. And don't count him out for five just yet. Gordon is 12th in the current standings.
Who would you like to see in the all-star race on Saturday?
Fans can cast their ballots for their favorite driver by visiting NASCAR.com/SprintFanVote. Fans can vote an unlimited number of times after downloading the NASCAR Mobile '13 application. Votes cast on NASCAR Mobile '13 will count twice toward a driver's total. The driver receiving the highest number of votes will compete in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
My money is on Danica Patrick, although Bill Elliott would be a nice sentimental pick.
Martin Truex Jr., who is also in the mix, was asked about the process during a teleconference on Tuesday.
"Obviously our sport revolves around the fans," he said. "We talk about it all the time. Without them, there would be no NASCAR; we would not be doing what we're doing. I get to drive race cars for a living. Growing up as a kid, I never thought that was even a possibility.
"To get voted in by the fans was one of the coolest things I've ever had happen to me in my whole career. Maybe this year we'll have a chance at it. I would say my odds are not very good with Danica being in there. "
Ryan Newman would like a phone call from NASCAR so he could elaborate on his rant following the race in Talladega.
"I'd have to say, if they had a driver who was an engineer that understood the race cars more than anybody else, or more than the average [driver], you'd think they would consider my opinion and my education," said Newman, who graduated from Purdue University with an engineering degree. "But I haven't seen that yet."
Newman wasn't fined for the incident, escalating the standard debate about what gets drivers in trouble in terms of commentary.
"They can build safer race cars; they can build safer walls," Newman said in Talladega. "But they can't get their heads out of their [behinds] far enough to keep them on the race track."
Copyright © 2014, Orlando Sentinel