SI.com's Mark Beech takes a spin around the racing world for the most intriguing stories in and out of the garage.
Jimmie Johnson has now won two straight races, and three of the last four. Suddenly, the air of inevitability that began to settle over the Cup garage after his win at Dover four weeks ago has turned into an air of resigned defeat. Only Mark Martin, Johnson's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, and Alan Gustafson, Martin's hyper-competitive crew chief, seem not to have succumbed.
And all week I've heard and read a variation of the question: is this good for racing?
Allow me to answer that with another question: Why are we only worried about this now? Cale Yarbrough's three straight championships from 1976-78 were won by, respectively, about 200, 400 and 500 points. None of those are really very close. Before Yarbrough, Richard Petty won four championships in five years (1971-75). Was there this much hand-wringing back in the day that not enough guys were getting to kiss Miss Winston every weekend?
How neurotic can we get about this sport? Johnson isn't just one of the best drivers in the game today. He's one of the best -- if not the best -- ever. Why is that so hard to deal with? NASCAR fans love to kvetch about the decline of their sport, but truth be told, folks, there weren't many ways NASCAR could go after it's meteoric rise through the 1990s.
To be sure, NASCAR brought some of this anxiety on itself, claiming that its gigantic niche was on par with the mass appeal of the NFL. I've always thought NASCAR was more like hockey -- only bigger. The axiom in the NHL was that there are 18,000 hockey fans in just about every city in the league, and they all go to every game every night. That's always seemed to me an apt analogy for racing, which has huge appeal in various corners of the country -- and the Southeastern United States is a vast corner -- but very limited drawing power elsewhere.
So the sport is what it is -- and that's pretty much what it has always been. I've been told as much this season by such all-time greats as Petty and Darrell Waltrip. Let's get past that. The new car has its problems, but it seems to be extremely safe (knock on wood), and I like that. Mass angst about the supposed decline of a once great game should not be distracting us from the fact that history is unfolding right before our eyes.
If there's a "solution" to this non-problem, perhaps it lies in a rejiggering of the Cup schedule. Just as the PGA Tour started Tiger-proofing its courses a few years ago, maybe NASCAR should think about a Johnson-proof Chase. Slip a couple of road courses in there, and maybe one visit each to Talladega and Daytona. If you want to get really dirty, maybe try a race at Bristol, where Johnson has never won. If any driver in the sport can be said to have a home-field advantage at this point, it's Johnson on the 10 tracks that make up the Chase. He loves them.
Just don't tell me that he's bad for the sport, okay? Because I just don't think people would have made that argument about, say, Dale Earnhardt, Sr.. And I can't imagine the Intimidator would have had much patience with somebody who tried.
15: Number of starts for Johnson at Martinsville
43: Number of starts for Mark Martin at Martinsville
6: Number of wins for Johnson at Martinsville
2: Number of wins for Martin at Martinsville
So, here's a clip of Carl Edwards (via the fine blog From The Marbles) in Miami to promote next month's season-ending race at Homestead, back-flippin' into Biscayne Bay. He's joined by his interrogator from the local FOX Sports outfit, a young lady who, because of a lack of either desire or aptitude, eschews the flip and opts instead for the Nestea Plunge.
Nothing too special here, right? But if you watch to the end, you'll see Edwards gimping his way off the bus/boat at the conclusion of the trip. Wonder if he'd be pulling stunts like this if he was fighting JJ for a Cup championship. I think not.
Oh, and Carl -- if there's no hug at the end of our next interview, I'm going to feel slighted.