Here is Jimmie Johnson's latest Daytona 500. Will NASCAR finally appreciate its greatness?

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Only three drivers in NASCAR historical past have received seven Cup championships of their careers. One is Richard Petty, a residing legend whose early dominance helped construct the recognition of the game; one other was Dale Earnhardt, an unforgettable icon whose life and premature demise have reshaped sport eternally.

The third is Jimmie Johnson, who will start his final Cup Series season from Sunday within the Daytona 500. Johnson's {qualifications} are, indubitably, equal to these of the best drivers in historical past. But regardless of his astounding success, Johnson by no means actually captured the creativeness of followers in the identical means that Petty and Earnhardt did – all of the extra that he dominated. throughout an period of huge upheaval and notable decline, inside the flagship NASCAR circuit.

For a collection whose celebrities can turn into synonymous with the game itself, the query with Johnson is: what will we do with an all-time nice who presided over an period when NASCAR is actively making an attempt to get by?

It is not Johnson's fault that he has dominated the Cup Series so properly for thus a few years. After ending second within the 2003 and 2004 season rankings, Johnson received his first championship in 2006… after which every of the next 4 as properly. (Before Johnson's arrival, just one driver – Cale Yarborough – had even received three consecutive titles, properly below 5.) Johnson then nailed two extra first place finishes in 2013 and 2016 to convey his profession to seven , to go along with 83 profession wins – tied for the sixth time in significance – and greater than $ 150 million in profession earnings.

But Johnson's superiority additionally coincided with an unpopular new automobile design and the period of NASCAR's Chase for the Cup, an typically controversial playoff system that radically revised the construction of the collection to create drama ultimately of season races. In the primary seven seasons of the brand new format, Johnson received 5 titles; even now he has received virtually half of the championships obtainable because the system was launched.

So, for higher and for worse, Johnson was the king of the Cup Series playoffs.

There have been a number of keys to Johnson's success. The first was his place at Hendrick Motorsports, a legendary crew that helped one other all-time nice driver, Jeff Gordon, win 4 championships between 1995 and 2001. During his personal dominant run, Gordon had recruited Johnson to surrender bike and truck racing (sure, you learn that proper) and take inventory vehicles. It was a wonderful choice. Johnson fashioned a long-term partnership with crew chief Chad Knaus at Hendrick, and his crew finally grew to become arguably probably the most unstoppable machine within the historical past of motorsport.

Johnson's personal metal dealing with deserves a lot credit score for his collection of championship seasons. His automobile itself was quick, beginning with a mean grid place of 9.Four throughout the 5 laps from 2006 to 2010. (No different driver had a mean higher begin than 11.1.) But Johnson has not often given up on this benefit: in response to the detailed loop information from indispensable Racing-Reference.data, Johnson was solely overtaken on common 61.Eight occasions per race (with a inexperienced flag) throughout 2006-10 seasons, which was the sixth lowest amongst drivers with a minimum of 75 races over that interval.

And when Johnson wanted to overhaul, he made it rely. Using the identical Racing-Reference information, we discover that 74.5% of Johnson's passes throughout this five-year interval had been what the location considers to be of the "quality" selection, which implies that ; they had been made to the detriment of a automobile within the high 15 below inexperienced flag circumstances. Only Gordon was shut at 73.1%; the subsequent closest was Kyle Busch with 66.3%.

Jimmie Johnson took benefit of his passing alternatives

Among NASCAR Cup Series drivers from 2006 to 2010, highest share of inexperienced flag passes towards vehicles within the high 15

Passes / Green Flag Race

Driver
Races
By driver
Against. Driver
Diff.
Quality Pass%

1
Jimmie Johnson
180
69.6
61.8
7.8
74.5%

2
Jeff Gordon
180
67.8
64.9
2.9
73.1

3
Kyle Busch
180
75.8
67.2
8.6
66.3

4
Denny Hamlin
180
74.9
66.6
8.2
65.4

5
Carl Edwards
180
73.0
66.0
7.0
62.3

6
Kurt Busch
180
74.9
72.2
2.7
62.0

seven
Tony Stewart
180
74.5
62.3
12.2
62.0

8
Jeff Burton
180
84.9
77.3
7.6
58.6

9
Mark martin
156
65.7
65.4
0.3
58.6

ten
Matt Kenseth
180
80.3
74.3
6.0
56.2

Source: Racing-Reference.data

So Johnson at all times at all times began on the entrance, was not often overwhelmed and was a grasp of the restoration of important positions when he wanted them. No surprise he has received 5 consecutive championships.

But going even additional, Johnson's consistency throughout this race was unreal – he virtually by no means had a foul race. Racing-Reference has a "driver ranking" statistic which goals to evaluate the efficiency of a driver in every race primarily based on a set of things, together with the ultimate place (with emphasis on the victory), the race place throughout many of the race and the overall velocity on the course of the occasion. In the Cup Series, scores vary from a minimal of 20 factors to a most of 150 factors, with an general common of round 70. And from 2006 to 2010, Johnson fell beneath one rating of 70 solely 16 occasions in 180 races – minus 9 p.c of the time.1

Then there is Johnson's clutch efficiency to lock down these championships. From 2006 to 2010, Johnson competed within the final race of the season by trailing or main lower than 150 factors within the standings every year. (For context, the winner of a race would get 180 or 185 factors at the moment, so the championship was in no way sure.) In these 5 late season races, Johnson completed within the high 10 4 occasions, on common a sky -high driver ranking of 105.7. Later, in 2013, Johnson coolly did what it took to clinch, putting within the high 15 for 91% of the race to beat Matt Kenseth for the title after dealing with duel Kenseth within the playoffs.

With a championship at stake, Johnson was Mr. Clutch

Position within the standings for Jimmie Johnson and his closest opponents earlier than the final race of the season, and efficiency in that race, for years when Johnson received the NASCAR Cup Series championship

Jimmie Johnson
Closest competitor
Final race

Year
Rank
Points
Driver
Difference
end
Driver ranking

2016
T-1
5,000
Three others
0
1
109.9

2013
1
2,384
Matt Kenseth
-28
9
109.1

2010
2
6,447
Denny Hamlin
15
2
119.4

2009
1
6,492
Mark martin
-108
5
116.0

2008
1
6,561
Carl Edwards
-141
15
93.6

2007
1
6,572
Jeff Gordon
-86
seven
104.1

2006
1
6,332
Matt Kenseth
-63
9
95.4

Source: Racing-Reference.data

And maybe in his greatest win, Johnson broke a tie earlier than the race within the 2016 Cup standings by successful the Ford EcoBoost 400, which ended the season – regardless of beginning behind the sphere on account of a failed pre-failure inspection and having to keep away from a late crash that eradicated championship rival Carl Edwards. Johnson's virtually excellent restart and the final lap in time beyond regulation on the Homestead-Miami Speedway had been emblematic of the impeccable performances he was capable of summon below strain:

All good issues should finish, and Johnson's grip on NASCAR has loosened significantly in current seasons. This 2016 title was form of a renewal in itself, approaching the heels of the lowest-ranking pair of full-time seasons (11th in 2014 and 10th in 2015) that Johnson had by no means had within the Cup Series. But prior to now three years, Johnson has solely completed 10th within the standings, slipping into 18th place (and lacking the playoffs, a Chase first) in a disappointing 2019 marketing campaign. His relationship with Knaus deteriorated and the 2 separated in 2018, Johnson having crossed paths with two crew leaders final season. He has not received a race since his seize from the AAA 400 Drive For Autism in June 2017.

As Johnson turns to Daytona, the place he has received 3 times within the Cup Series (however not since 2013), he appears to acknowledge that his final season will extra probably be a farewell tour than a sensible battle for the eighth file championship. The wreckage of Busch Clash final Sunday was an ominous warm-up for the large race – though Johnson certified sixth on grid 500 after the Duels, and completed third within the final race of the Cup in Daytona in July. Vegas provides Johnson a 25 to 1 odds on this yr's 500 (tied for 10th with 5 different drivers) and solely 40 to 1 possibilities of successful the championship in its last season. The greatest 2020 state of affairs for Johnson could possibly be a repeat of the magic of the Hendrick crew in 2015 over the last full season of Gordon's Cup, when the legend completed third within the standings at age 43.

Like Johnson, Gordon has by no means been voted the most well-liked NASCAR driver, though this is primarily on account of his profession overlap with three absolute fan assist titans: Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr Johnson, by comparability, has received extra titles than Elliott, Gordon and "Little E" mixed, however has by no means been greater than one of many many finalists for the award on an annual foundation. Originally from California, as a substitute of the extra conventional southern roots of different NASCAR stars, getting into a sportier period of sport might have dampened Johnson's potential to resonate in the identical means as Petty, Elliott and the Earnhardts.

"In my eyes, I think there was a lack of connection with me," Johnson instructed Lee Spencer of RBN earlier this month. "I think the way I was raised and the way the opportunities happened for me – being so structured and so corporate – that was the way I had to go. It created this opportunity for me, but I think it hurt the connection point with the fans. "

"I was always, perhaps, a little reserved. And that just didn't translate well. "

And that couldn't have helped that Johnson's success was so synonymous with the interval of NASCAR unrest since its peak within the mid-2000s. An typically quoted statistic from Sports Business Daily is that the variety of NASCAR viewers decreased by 45% between 2005 and 2017, in response to information from Nielsen. (In comparability, NFL rankings fell solely 8% regardless of an more and more fractured media panorama.) The sharp drop was attributed to a variety of things, together with company mismanagement, unpopular modifications to vehicles and guidelines, and a battle to achieve a younger, extra various fan base that is typically much less excited about cars than the earlier generations that contributed to the expansion of NASCAR.

None of this is Johnson's fault, although he might have benefited from the unconventional modifications NASCAR made to the Cup Series format simply earlier than it received huge. (Johnson and Knaus had been masters of find out how to win by the principles introduced to them, which is an indicator of the championship technique we see in all sports activities.) Given its consistency and efficiency below strain , Johnson would have been an important driver always.

But now that this nice profession is coming to an finish, Johnson is contemplating his final Daytona 500 with renewed inspiration for a strong last season.

"There is so much excitement in my heart that it is really fun and it gives me energy and teamwork," he instructed Michelle Martinelli, from USA Today. "I know that over the year it will get more emotional, but right now it just brings a ton of energy."

With the additional advantage of some perspective on his legacy, followers might maybe start to see Johnson's last yr with the identical feeling of pleasure – and a sense of appreciation for his achievements in sport.

Dhrumil Mehta contributed to the analysis.

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