Bruce Martin
Monday November 17th, 2008

MIAMI -- By winning his third-straight championship, joining Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to three-peat, Jimmie Johnson could make a strong case that he's the greatest NASCAR driver ever.

And while that statement may rankle the fans of seven-time champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, as well as those who think four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon was the best driver ever, the fact that Johnson has won titles in a more competitive racing era backs up the claim.

Johnson joined the Cup series as a rookie in 2002 and already has 40 victories. There is no reason to believe he can't win a fourth straight title in 2009.

"I don't know how you can doubt the talent that he's got and the competitiveness of the sport and the things that he does in the car and the coolness, the communications," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "The way he describes the chassis and works with [crew chief] Chad [Knaus]. I don't think he's gotten the respect he deserves.

"I think this is kind of serving notice that what he's really done to win three of these in a row. If you go back and look at since he stepped into the series, what he's accomplished in his record speaks for itself. I'm just glad I don't have to race against him."

The combination of Johnson and Knaus is NASCAR's version of Michael Jordan as the star player and Phil Jackson as the coach when the Chicago Bulls won six NBA titles in the 1990s or Derek Jeter playing for manager Joe Torre when the New York Yankees won three-straight World Series in the late 1990s.

"I've been fortunate to work with really great race car drivers," said Knaus, who became the first crew chief in Cup history to win three-straight titles. "I worked with Jeff Gordon in the 24 car. I've seen what Jeff can do with a race car and I've got a lot of respect for what Jeff can do. To be able to work with Jimmie, he's definitely brought it to a new level. But I'm also a lot more entwined than I was back then, with what's going on.

"In my eyes, he's the best that there has ever been. People are going to say Richard Petty is, Dale Earnhardt and all those guys. But with the competition level the way it is today, with what you've got to do working, racing day-in and day-out, no time to take time off, in my mind, he is the best."

Yarborough's mark stood for 30 years as the driver from Sardis, S.C., won his titles for Junior Johnson from 1976 to '78. In that era, Johnson was the top team in NASCAR, much as Hendrick Motorsports is today.

When Kyle Busch got off to such a strong start by winning eight races during the 26-race regular season, he was considered the favorite to win the Chase. But Johnson's team knew the title wouldn't be awarded in the regular season and waited to peak at the right time.

So for the third season in a row, they were able to master what it takes to win the Chase.

And the mastermind behind that strategy is Knaus, who is already talking about winning four-in-a-row next season.

"Yeah, we want four, why not? That's why we're here," Knaus said. "We think with the team that we've got, the resources that we've got with Hendrick Motorsports and Team Chevrolet behind us, we can definitely go and bid for four championships in a row. Why wouldn't we? Give me a reason why not to. I think that's the mentality we've got to have.

"To get four championships in a row, you have to get three. And we're fortunate to get three. If we buckle down and do what we need to do, we'll be in contention for our fourth championship next year. If that means I have to get up at eight o'clock tomorrow morning and go to work to do it, I'll do it."

In Johnson, the team has the perfect driver to win another championship. He learned from his mistakes the first two years of the Chase when he went into the 10-race playoff as the points leader only to see Kurt Busch win in 2004 and Tony Stewart clinch in 2005.

Since that time, Johnson has been unstoppable in championship situations.

"I think from a driver's standpoint I could go race again next week and start the season and go for four," Johnson said. "From their standpoint, these guys need a break. I think every team out there has worked to the bone, and I can speak on our team's behalf. They have tested and have worked so much that they need some time off to recharge."

Perhaps the only thing that can beat Johnson, Knaus and Hendrick are themselves. They've set the standard that rival teams can only dream of reaching.

"I've never seen anyone in my 25 years that are willing to sacrifice any more or as much as they have just because they want it so bad," Hendrick said of Johnson and Knaus. "Usually sometimes when guys get it one time or twice, they maybe back off a little bit. They've gotten there. This just makes these guys even hungrier. So the chemistry between them and the respect they have, I think, I don't see them, I hope there's nothing in the future that would separate them."

Even after hoisting the Sprint Cup title for a third-straight time, Johnson still thinks this combination can get even better.

"There's still always room for improvement," he said. "I don't think any driver can say they had the perfect season or the perfect race. I guess when you do think that you've accomplished that it's time to do something else. Maybe the hunger's gone at that point.

"But there are so many things that go on on the track. So many adjustments we have with the car, so many corrections, based on comments with my emotions, how we drive the car. With Chad and the guys and what they develop and start working on. It's just always a moving target. New tires, new cars, new tracks, no testing -- it just never ends. So I don't think you ever quit learning how to do a better job as a driver or as a crew member in today's world of racing. You just can't stop.

"The day that desires fades and you aren't willing to put in the time and work for that, I think that's when it goes away. That's what I'm so excited about when I look in my guys' eyes. They're ready to go racing. They want to do it again. That is something special. That's something you can't put together. We've been fortunate to have the right guys, the right leadership, and the right support to bring the best out of all of us, and we're on a roll."

So even before Johnson and his team returned home to North Carolina following their third-straight Cup title, they are already favorites to win the Sprint Cup in 2009.

On the morning after the confetti shower to celebrate Jimmie Johnson's third consecutive championship and the late-night parties at South Beach clubs, those in NASCAR awoke to deal with their economic hangover.

Championship Sunday was followed by "Black Monday" throughout the sport as crew members and other employees on NASCAR teams faced layoffs. By the end of the week, the unemployment lines will include mechanics, engineers, tire changers, secretaries and other personnel who played vital roles in getting Sprint Cup teams and cars ready to roll every weekend.

As the worldwide economy is gripped in its greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, many of those who had their dream jobs in racing are part of this economic nightmare. And not even another bottle of champagne is going to make this pain and heartache go away.

Last week, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. merged with Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates and announced plans for a four-car team in 2009, which means a net loss of two cars on the starting grid from those two operations at the start of the 2008 season.

Max Siegel, the director of Global operations at DEI, had to deliver the bad news to over 100 employees that were laid off. "It was horrible when we had to do it and I still feel that way," he said. "I wanted to make sure that all of us were there to look everybody in the eye and make sure they knew their contributions to the company have been appreciated. And also as a leader, to accept the responsibility and have to deal with the range of emotions that people have.

"We sat down and wanted to make sure from a separation standpoint we gave them enough notice and counseling to help soften the blow. But it is difficult."

Siegel said when he first arrived there were 350 employees at DEI before the team grew to 472 employees after the merger with Bobby Ginn Racing in 2007. About 147 employees were transferred to the Earnhardt Childress Racing Engine operation.

"Through this whole process, every team is being impacted, so there is a spirit of cooperation," Siegel said. "We've got managers on the phone with other race teams to find spots for people losing jobs. We've been sending text messages and notes about what other teams' needs are. That's really been refreshing to see that happen."

Now that the two teams have merged, more details will be worked out in the next few weeks. Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex, Jr. and Aric Almirola have been named to three of the four cars that will be fielded by the combined team. The driver of the No. 41 entry has yet to be announced.

Even teams that are considered strong, such as Richard Childress Racing, will have layoffs this week as they try to cut costs and deal with the changing landscape in NASCAR.

"You are definitely going to see layoffs from all organizations," Childress said. "You have to tighten your belt as tight as you can and we are going to have to ask more out of the people than we have. I have no idea how many people we'll have to let go. Mike Dillon and those guys are working on it. There are a lot of factors that play into it. We're not going to layoff as many as a lot of teams because we are going to have a fourth team next year."

Jeff Burton is one of Childress' four drivers for next season and he usually has a well-thought out opinion on almost any subject, including how the economy is having a negative impact on the sport.

"I've had to let people go in the past and it sucks," Burton said. "It's one of the reasons why I've hesitated being an owner, because today, when I wake up, I don't have to worry about 400 employees and 600 children and 300 wives. It's a huge responsibility that at this point in my life I don't have to take on."

NASCAR's business model makes it more susceptible to economic downturns than other professional sports because it depends on corporate sponsorships to keep the teams in business. When the economy is bad, sponsors have to re-evaluate their business model, and if those companies are losing money, they can't justify the millions of dollars that it take to be part of the sport.

So as millions of Americans have felt the pain of a lost job in 2008, that bitter reality has hit NASCAR's own this week. And as the sport looks ahead to 2009, there may be more hard times on the horizon.

Jack Roush would like for his fellow NASCAR Sprint Cup team owners to come to a gentlemen's agreement that they will honor the ban on testing by not even testing at tracks that do not stage NASCAR events. He emphasized that he is not going to build a private test track for any of his teams.

"I have neither the money nor the inclination to build a test track, and also have had conversations with NASCAR president Mike Helton and I don't have any intention to try to get around their test rules," Roush said. "If we could organize a situation where all the established teams would hold hands and resolve not to test outside of the NASCAR mandated or approved testing, not go to the skid pads, not go to Canada, not go to Pikes Peak or any of the places they're checking on, I'd be happier with that than to skirt around.

"[But] If everybody else does it, we may have to do it, too, but that's certainly not in the spirit of trying to save the teams money and trying to operate in these severe economic circumstances."

Some teams have openly discussed testing at such tracks as North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham. That track used to be a regular on the Cup and the old Busch Series schedules before its race dates were moved to California Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.

While Roush believes if all teams banned all testing, it would create an equal competitive environment, other team owners questioned whether everyone in the garage area would abide by such an agreement.

"Well, first you have to assume that we're all gentlemen," said J.D. Gibbs of Joe Gibbs Racing. "I think for us, that is good wisdom, and when it comes to technical things, how the sport works, Jack is probably second to none when it comes to that, so that is probably good wisdom on that. "I do think the difficulty for us next year is, we've got a guy [rookie Joey Logano] who has never been to these tracks. I agree with the testing ban, but how do you make it so a young guy at least gets his feet wet and tries some things? Do you do a little bit extra, give him a half hour at the racetrack? What can he do?

"I would say, too, that I think overall, there will still probably be some testing going on here at places like Rockingham, just trying stuff out before you hit the track with it. But I do think not having to have all four cars unloaded at a track is going to be a huge, huge savings for all the teams, all the owners. It's up to the owners to make sure. We've got to police it ourselves and make sure the value isn't lost on running here and there, testing odd stuff."

Race fans shouldn't expect to see any team loading up a transporter full of race cars and heading to Pikes Peak in Colorado to get a performance edge on the competition, because that certainly isn't going to save the sport any money. But in a highly competitive sport such as NASCAR, with everyone looking for an edge on the competition, team owners can become their own worst enemies. That means that even if Roush were to get his gentlemen's agreement, it wouldn't be long until a team owner would justify breaking for one reason or another.

Now that teams won't have to test at Daytona in January, it allows Carl Edwards a chance for more adventure off the race track.

"We're going to go to London and do the Race of Champions, and then from London we're going to Thailand and doing some big bicycle ride adventure over there," Edwards said. "I don't have an itinerary yet, but it will be exciting. Now that we have more time off in January, I don't know what I'll do then. We're going to have some fun, I guarantee you.

"We'll try to take a camera so you guys can see it. It should be exciting. Tom Giacchi [one of his crew members and buddies] in Bangkok is going to be priceless so I'm excited."

There was a time in Johnny Benson's career where he was a driver on the rise. After winning championships in ASA and later in what was then the NASCAR Busch Series in 1995, Benson was a hot property for NASCAR Cup teams.

He won the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title in 1996 driving the Pennzoil Chevrolet and appeared to have a bright future.

But 13 years after winning the championship in what is now the Nationwide Series, Benson is older, wiser and more appreciative.

By winning the 2008 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion by just seven points over Ron Hornaday, Benson becomes the driver with the largest gap between championships.

Terry Labonte held that honor when he won the 1984 and 1996 Cup titles.

"I think you can appreciate every championship in its own little way for sure," Benson said Friday night. "Winning [at the time] the Busch Series championship was not easy, like this year hasn't been, either. I may have been a little bit further ahead on that deal, and we won it before the last race of the season so it just shows the performance that we had was great.

"This one does mean a lot to Bill Davis Racing. I knew we would win a championship. I hated that it took this long, but I knew we were going to win a championship. It was just a matter of time."

Benson became the 10th different champion in the series and it was his first NCTS championship. The championship race was so close he was convinced he had lost it after Travis Kvapil passed him for sixth place on the final lap. Benson finished seventh and Hornaday eighth. Both drivers led a lap so were equal in bonus points but by finishing ahead of Hornaday, he won the title by a scant seven points.

Benson announced earlier this year he would be leaving Bill Davis Racing at the end of this season. He would not disclose his future endeavors just moments after clinching the title, choosing instead to relish the moment.

"It is difficult about the decision but I don't care about that right now," Benson said. "To win 14 races the last three years is incredible. Those are great numbers in this sport today. I'm extremely proud of what this race team has been able to do."

Clint Bowyer's NASCAR Nationwide Series title proves that a driver can come from a dirt track racing background in the Midwest to become a champion in one of stock car racing's top series.

"No, 1, he's got car control from being on dirt tracks and that type of racing," said team owner Richard Childress. "To be a champion and to be what it takes to be successful in this sport. It's the toughest motorsport I think in the world. You've got to have heart and he has heart, and he knows when to dig, and I saw that even at the first races I watched him run.

"You've got to have heart and he has it."

By displaying heart and fearlessness behind the wheel, he gave Childress his fifth NASCAR Nationwide championship. It is also the third time the team has split the driver/car owner championships. RCR won the driver and owner championship in 2001 and 2006, both with Kevin Harvick. RCR won the car owner championships in 2003 and 2007 with multiple drivers.

The 29-year-old driver from Emporia, Kansas, finished 21 points ahead of fellow Midwesterner Carl Edwards, who is from Columbia, Mo.

Afterwards, Bowyer and Edwards were able to laugh about their first meeting on a race track in Moberly, Missouri.

"It was funny, I saw Carl at the steps leaving here, and he said he shared a story and we both thought it was funny we raced at the same race in Moberly, Missouri," Bowyer said. "It was my first asphalt race. I went over there with a guy named Scott Traylor and drove his modified and had an awesome car. I mean, this thing was beautiful, top notch.

"I show up, and here comes this ragged out, turd of a race car that was way louder than everything else, and for whatever reason had different tires than everybody else, and he killed us that day. And I'm like, who in the hell is that guy?

"It was Carl Edwards. "So we had that moment down there, and I told him, I said, 'that's payback for Moberly.' That was our first race together. We race a lot. He did a better job of wrecking my cars this year than I did but we had a lot of fun, and still, it comes down to enjoying each other, and Carl is a hell of a race car driver. There is no way of getting around it"

"Thank God we don't have a Chase."

-- Team owner Bill Davis, referring to the fact that every year the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series title race, which includes all events in the season, is a much closer battle than the Sprint Cup Chase, which is determined over the final 10 races of the year. Davis' NCTS driver, Johnny Benson, won the championship by just seven points over Ron Hornaday, Jr."

"I'm going to fill that time with sitting on my couch."

-- Greg Biffle on what he is going to be doing now that preseason testing has been banned by NASCAR.

See Greg Biffle's quote.

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