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Caraviello: Reign is over, but Johnson set standard for a champion

November 23, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Caraviello: Reign is over, but Johnson set standard for a champion
Everyone, even those who grew tired of watching him win, should give thanks

The way it ended was just sad. The greatest championship run NASCAR has ever seen limped to the finish, the victim of first a mechanical problem and then a brush with the wall. Jimmie Johnson lost laps when his No. 48 car developed a carburetor problem that took forever to diagnose and repair, and then suffered one final indignity when he banged off the concrete at Homestead-Miami Speedway and was spun by another vehicle that couldn't slow down in time. On a track where Johnson is more accustomed to celebrating titles amid a flurry of confetti and sprayed champagne, he instead shuffled home 32nd and completely obscured by the larger events unfolding around him.

That would be the duel between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, ended in scintillating fashion when the former edged the latter in a points tiebreaker forced by the No. 14 car winning the race. It was an amazing night and a landmark moment for NASCAR, which saw the closest championship hunt in its history ended by the best race many had ever seen. Judging by the delirious fan reaction, Stewart will be an immensely popular champion, perhaps even more so than the first two times he claimed the title. And yet, given the sustained level of excellence Johnson has shown on so many fronts for half a decade, you wished he would have gone out on a brighter note. Even his nine-year streak of top-five points finishes was snapped.

"The absolute beauty of Jimmie Johnson is not his five titles, but that despite them he's remained the earnest, uncomplicated Southern California guy he's always been."

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The guy deserved better. Because say what you want about how mechanical his race team can seem, about the methodical way in which he can win races, about how his personality or demeanor may not engage people. All those things are subjective. But one thing is not -- over the past five years Johnson has set the standard for what it means to be a champion in NASCAR, showing only class and dignity in both good and bad situations, earning respect for his actions on the track as well as off. No, he'll never be NASCAR's most popular driver. But he'll always be exactly what he is, a humble, genuine individual who is respectful of what he's achieved, who has never been corrupted by success, who shakes your hand and looks you in the eye and remembers your name. The absolute beauty of Jimmie Johnson is not his five titles, but that despite them he's remained the earnest, uncomplicated Southern California guy he's always been.

Now, none of this is meant to be any sort of indictment against the new champion Stewart, who still lives in his old house back in Columbus, Ind., and who is most comfortable surrounded by his buddies and a few cartons of Schlitz. There's something inherently likeable about Stewart, the everyman of NASCAR drivers, even though he has surly moments when he's about as approachable as Bengal tiger. Still, away from the track Stewart is as gracious and as friendly as it gets -- he even reduced himself to having dinner with a few media members during last year's Champions Week in Las Vegas -- and his wicked, cutting sense of humor is an absolute wonder to behold. So no, this isn't about Stewart, a peoples' champion who wears the crown in his own unique way.

But there's just something about Johnson that makes you think he would have been a success in whatever he did, even if racing is the only career he's ever known. He has endured so much criticism over the course of his championship reign, so much of it unfair, from people who either got tired of seeing him win or simply couldn't grasp the fact that even with the glamorous wife and cosmopolitan lifestyle, he was just a regular dude. This is a sport that likes its races dramatic and its championships colorful, and Johnson didn't necessarily fit that mold. He won races with bloodless efficiency, he stayed composed in the race car, he showed an uncanny knack for being able to speak his mind on controversies without becoming entangled in them. At the same time, though, despite all the race wins and the money and becoming the face of his sport, Johnson always stayed true to himself.

NASCAR could never have asked for a better ambassador than Johnson, who was completely qualified to sell the sport's message to the world. Through his fitness regime and focus solely on winning Sprint Cup titles, he helped revolutionize the sport, something evidenced by a spate of drivers either trying to get in better shape or scaling back their outside interests -- even if the one-of-a-kind Stewart, whose sheer talent seems able to overcome all things, of course contradicts all that. Regardless, Johnson's mark has been left, on and off the track, and in both cases it is indelible. In comportment, talent, work ethic and grace, he sets the standard for all champions to come.

* Watch: Drivers reflect on Johnson's historic streak | Shop: Johnson gear

Not that he's finished yet, of course. The troubles at Homestead were only the deflating finale to Chase full of mediocre runs that left the five-time champion seeming ordinary for the first time in his NASCAR career. Everyone expected the usual surge after his victory at Kansas, a place from which he had launched his championship bids time and time again. It never came. Instead the No. 48 car went backward, falling from relevance as this Chase neared its endgame, and leading to legitimate questions about whether Johnson can ascend to the plateau of seven titles reached only by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, or perhaps even exceed it.

"I want to believe in it," he said last weekend. "How long I can race in my career -- I think there's a chance. I don't know how realistic that chance is. But I want to believe in it, and I think I can."

First though there will be that uncomfortable banquet to sit through, a ceremony Jeff Gordon joked that his wife Ingrid, whom he married five years ago, thought was always for Johnson and nobody else. Then there will be the offseason moves and the efforts at improvement. Johnson said he and crew chief Chad Knaus will be back together again next season, working once more on title No. 6. "We have a lot to learn from this year," he said, "and Chad and I have already been in meetings throughout this last week setting up wish lists of what we think we can do better, how we can do a better job at it."

Make no mistake about it, Johnson will be back. He rallied from fractious near-misses in 2004 and '05 to win five straight titles, still knows how to wheel a race car with the best of them, still has a slate full of friendly tracks waiting for him every Chase. But if he were to retire tomorrow, Johnson would leave behind not just a legacy of success, but a lesson on how to achieve greatness and yet remain human at the same time. Jimmie Johnson's supreme accomplishment is remaining Jimmie Johnson, the regular guy from El Cajon who just also happened to be the greatest NASCAR champion of his generation. He represented the sport with aplomb, and made it proud. For that, everyone -- even those who booed him, even those who tired of seeing him win, even those who rooted for other drivers -- should say only one thing.

Thanks.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.