Full circle for NASCAR champions
by Bran Strickland
Oct 23, 2011 | 6721 views |  0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
To determine a winner, NASCAR goes around in circles. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the sport’s history has been so cyclical.

Champions come. They reign for a time. And then they fade away.

• David Pearson won three titles in four years (1966, 68-69).

• Richard Petty won four in five years (71-72, 74-75).

• Dale Earnhardt won four in five years (90-91, 93-94).

• Jeff Gordon won three in four years (95, 97-98).

• And then there’s Jimmie Johnson, who’s on his current run of five straight titles.

For all but Petty and Gordon after their winning streaks, the drivers failed to reclaim that level of dominance. Petty and Gordon (still active), did it only once, 1979 and 2001, respectively.

The reasons are varied. The trend is pointed.

Johnson’s eyebrow raised under his blue Lowe’s cap when a reporter explained the past scenarios. He twisted his mouth and said it wouldn’t happen to him.

His fire to win still burns as strong as ever.

“I don’t know what the other circumstances were,” Johnson said. “I feel like I’m young enough in my career, to where I’m not satisfied.”

Why has it happened?

The mountain top is a funny thing.

When you’re above all the rest in your sport, desire to win can wane. That was the case with Yarborough. After his three-peat, he raced a full schedule just two more years, satisfied with part-time work and more family until the late-80s.

Pearson cut back, too. For the next two seasons after running 51 races, he turned out for just 36 of the 96 scheduled races.

The end of Petty’s reign could be tied to automaker and technology. Earnhardt’s death certainly played a role; he raced for seven more years after his title finishing second once.

And at 40, it may be a smidge too soon to judge Gordon’s career as a body of work.

Ed Hinton, a 37-year veteran Motorsports writer and author, said complacency — or being “less hungry” can hurt.

But just as often other things can hurt too: 1. A shift in the team’s chemistry can disrupt that ideal balance between driver and crew chief; 2. Others just work harder, through something he calls a game of technology leapfrog.

“Now, technology evolves a little more rapidly,” said Hinton, a writer for ESPN.com. “A team on top will use ‘if it ain’t broke’ mindset, meanwhile others are working like crazy to develop.”

The scenario plays itself out — minus the technology — in another sport Southerners rabidly love: College football.

From the wishbone to the option to the spread, all have seen their glory days. And have all been proven that they can be stopped.

Johnson’s time

It hasn’t been proven that Johnson can be stopped just yet. But it’s as close as anybody has seen.

En route to his five straight titles — a record for the sport — he amassed 37 wins with an average finish inside the top 10. This year, however, he’s slipped.

Johnson has won only twice: Once at Talladega Superspeedway and most recently, two weeks ago at Kansas. But a crash at Charlotte followed, dropping him five spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings. Going into today’s Good Sam Club 500, he sits eighth, 35 points behind leader Carl Edwards.

While climbing out of the hole might be difficult, current points leader Carl Edwards won’t say it’s impossible.

“It’s so competitive,” he said. “The problem is it is possible for six or eight guys to do it, so it comes down to circumstances and luck and strategy.”

Edwards knows it can happen because he’s seen it before. Done by the man himself.

In 2006, Johnson claimed the title by pulling off a five-race stretch of finishes of either first or second — Talladega not being among those. In 2007, he one-upped himself winning four-straight and then finished seventh in the finale to seal the title.

Johnson’s boss, car owner and teammate Jeff Gordon, remembers it well. Even if it was a little painful.

“I still think we could have won the championship that year even with them doing that,” said Gordon, who finished 77 points behind in 2007. “They did everything they could possibly do and then we gave up a little bit, and they win the championship.

“… yeah, they’ve done some miraculous things, for sure.”

Bran Strickland is the sports editor for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3570 or follow him on Twitter @bran_strickland.

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