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NASCAR: Comparing Johnson’s Run to Other Dynasties

December 1, 2009 Leave a comment

You may have heard:  Jimmie Johnson won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship.  Again.  If you have followed NASCAR since the 2006 season, this is not news.

What does seem to be news is that Johnson has done it year after year during “The Chase”, NASCAR’s version of a postseason.  Johnson’s dominance might simply be due to the Sprint cup system, which seems not to necessarily reward the year’s most consistently successful driver, but rather to spend the first six months simply limiting the field to “qualifiers”.

This article sums up the system pretty well:

For example, If you finish the first 26 races in the top twelve in points and have won three races so far that season then you would start the chase with 5,030 points.

So, pretty much every driver in the chase starts at the same place, when you consider the difference between a driver who qualifies for a race and doesn’t finish or finishes in last, and the driver who wins is between 155 and 160 points.  That’s more than four times the difference between a driver that wins four races during the regular season and one who doesn’t win once.

NASCAR really isn’t a performance based sport as much as it is a preparation based sport.  Does that diminish Johnson’s accomplishments at all?  I don’t think so.  You can buy NASCAR championships in much of the same manner that you can buy Super Bowl Championships or World Series, but the actual championship trophy gets awarded to the one who finishes strongest in the eyes of the system, not the one who plays the best throughout the season.  If nothing else, Johnson has proven to be a finisher.

I think this similarity allows us to compare his dynasty to other sports brands, and see how he compares to more team-oriented all-time winners.

2001-2007 New England Patriots

Verdict:  Less impressive.  Johnson has four titles to the Patriots’ three, but after taking the league by surprise in 2001, the Patriots got it done in the regular season, winning 12 games four or more times, and starting the 2007 season an unmatched 18-0.  Plus, they haven’t had much of a decline phase, and have re-shaped their brand from a defensive-minded mistake-free football team to an offensive juggernaut.  That’s more impressive.

1996-2003 New York Yankees

Verdict:  Johnson’s run is more impressive.  The Yankees found a winning mix at the end of the 20th century led by Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada.  The Yankees were able to get to that magical 100 win mark of dominance on more than one occasion, but after winning the title more often than not in that four year window leading up through the Subway Series with the Mets in 2000, they were unable to sustain that high level of success.  It’s premature to say Johnson will continue to be there at the end in the future, but at this pace, his accomplishments would be more impressive than the Yankees.

1998-2009 Los Angeles Lakers

Verdict:  More impressive.  The difference between the Lakers and the Yankees is not very much, but if I had to, I’d give the nod to the Lakers because they really had to re-invent themselves under Phil Jackson to get back to the level of play with which they three-peated from ’99-’01.  The Lakers failed to re-invent themselves many times over the years, but did make the necessary changes, and have returned to dominance.  For Johnson, though, his winning formula is more like what the Lakers had at the beginning of the decade: whether or not you’re the very best at the sport, your strategy of being there at the end when the drivers/teams with inferior equipment have to beat YOU to win, it’s been pretty infallible.

I think Johnson’s consecutive dominance can rank up there with the best of this decade in team sport, and he’s the quarterback of his own team, so to speak.  They’ve created a culture of winning, which is bad for everyone else in NASCAR, and it sure looks like this run can extend for another year or two.

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