Jimmie Johnson gives a thumbs-up after winning the pole for the Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Ariz. (AP Photo)
Back in 2003, Matt Kenseth wrapped up his first Sprint Cup championship at Rockingham, one race before the season finale in Homestead.
Kenseth smothered his competition with consistency that simply could not be matched. He finished in the top 10 in 25 of 36 races with 11 top-five finishes and one win to his credit.
But when Kenseth climbed out of his car on Sunday after a disappointing 23rd-place finish — his worst result so far in this year’s Chase — he said he was disappointed, but not devastated despite the fact that the performance effectively ended his chances of winning a second Cup title.
“This has been the best year of my racing career,” Kenseth said.
It’s easy to see why Kenseth feels that way. His seven victories are the most he’s ever had in a single season and he has recorded as many top-five finishes in 2013 as he racked up during his title-winning campaign a decade ago. Kenseth’s average finish is slightly worse — 12.4 this season compared to 10.2 in 2003 — but he has spent much of the year running up front, leading 1,639 laps in 2013 compared to just 354 in 2003.
By the time the checkered flag waves in Homestead next Sunday, however, Kenseth’s best season ever won’t be enough. Jimmie Johnson will almost certainly celebrate his sixth Cup championship thanks to the 28-point lead he built with his third-place finish behind Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick.
What Kenseth had no way of knowing in 2003 was that his title closed a chapter in NASCAR’s history. A new one began in 2004 with the introduction of the Chase, a 10-race playoff system that ushered in an era dominated by Johnson.
Johnson was in his second season back in 2003 and finished runner-up to Kenseth in the points standings. While Johnson was competitive from the day he started his Cup career in 2002, it took him until 2006 to perfect his chemistry with crew chief Chad Knaus. Since they won their first title together, nobody has had an answer for the 48 team.
Kenseth is just the latest driver to find out just how high Johnson and Knaus have raised the bar. Despite the fact that Kenseth won the first two Chase races and possesses as much poise as anyone on the circuit, even he couldn’t hold off the freight train that is the 48 Express.
Talk will now turn to Johnson’s quest to tie Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, who set the gold standard in the sport by winning seven championships each. Given that Johnson’s heroics have always received a cool reception at best from race fans, it’s hard to say whether he’ll ever be viewed as an equal to Earnhardt and Petty even if he does manage to win that seventh title.
It will certainly be an interesting conversation, one not altogether different from the debate that raged in baseball as Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds took turns erasing revered home run records from baseball’s record books under a cloud of suspicion during an era of rampant steroid use in the sport.
In the same vein, Knaus’ cavalier attitude toward NASCAR’s rule book will be brought under scrutiny, as will team owner Rick Hendrick’s sizable influence in the sport. But that’s not to say Johnson’s titles should have asterisks next to them, because the competitive advantages the driver has enjoyed over the last decade didn’t come from a bottle.
In fact, the biggest factor in the success of the 48 team, outside of stellar team management and Johnson’s grossly underrated skills as a driver, might be NASCAR itself.
In a never-ending effort to make every car on the track go roughly the same speed for the sake of parity, NASCAR has created an environment devoid of ingenuity. Crew chiefs and engineers have very few areas where they can make giant leaps in performance, making for a stagnant competitive landscape.
When you add in the fact that NASCAR gives laps back to drivers almost as quickly as they can lose them, the potential for bad days are minimized, allowing Johnson every opportunity to salvage solid finishes despite struggling for large portions of certain races. And the fact that the Chase races are held at virtually the same tracks every year also make it hard for anything to change in the pecking order.
To make what is becoming a long story a little bit shorter, Johnson’s team reached the top at the perfect moment in history, the moment when NASCAR froze the field, so to speak, and made it almost impossible for anyone to surpass the 48.
In the old days, every year brought a new automobile for all the teams to figure out. Crew chiefs were then able to climb under them and find ways to make them get through the corners in ways that suited their respective drivers. Every year, a certain team would hit on something that would rocket its car to the top of the speed charts, leaving everyone else to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to catch up.
But those days are long gone. This is a new era, for better or worse, an era in which Johnson’s at the top of the heap and NASCAR took away everyone’s drawing board.
It’s easy to hate Johnson for being in the catbird seat when the music stopped, but it’s hardly fair. Blame NASCAR for tinkering with a culture of competition and ingenuity that produced exciting racing for generations.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.