They say all good things must end sometime, and that goes for hairlines, waistlines and consecutive NASCAR championships.
Jimmie Johnson, 36, has a while before he has to sweat the hairline and the waistline, but his amazing streak of championships was ended this season by Tony Stewart.
But what a streak it was – five in a row.
When Cale Yarborough won a NASCAR-record three straight (1976-78), most gear-head gurus agreed that it was a mark that could never be beaten. Not even the great Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt, who share the record for total titles with seven, managed to string together three in row.
Before Johnson came along, Jeff Gordon was the most recent driver to come close. Gordon won back-to-back championships in 1998-98.
Surely no driver in this day of mega-teams, cloned cars and driver parity, could duplicate Cale’s feat. At least that’s what we thought at the time. But Johnson did just that when he won three straight in 2006-07-08 to tie Yarborough’s record.
And he wasn’t finished. The next year he won a fourth championship to break the “unbreakable’’ record.
Last year he piled on another one, giving him five in a row – arguably the most impressive accomplishment in the sport’s annals.
Skeptics like me, who had been counting him out, stopped counting.
Johnson, called “Five Time” for his record run, is a talented driver with a super team. But even he has his limits, and the limit was five. This season Johnson made a run at No. 6 – he made the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, and at one point climbed as high as third in the standings.
Then the odds caught up to him. He crashed at Charlotte and his normally bulletproof team wasn’t competitive the next week at Talladega. He found himself buried in the standings and out of contention. Five-Time finished 6th.
Johnson is a personable, intelligent, clean-cut family man and a superb representative of the sport. He transcends auto racing; in 2009 Jimmie was selected the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, the first time in the 79-year history of the award that it has gone to a race driver.
The only rap on Johnson is that he’s TOO good, too vanilla, too uncontroversial. (How many other pro sports would like to have that problem with their superstars?)
Johnson’s blandness is only part of the reason why his de-throning is healthy for the sport. Jimmie is like ice cream – too much of a good thing makes your teeth hurt, and after five years NASCAR’s teeth were starting to ache.
The sport needs some fresh faces out front, some new personalities for the media to focus on and for the fans to follow. Johnson’s five-year reign had grown stale and NASCAR needed a change.
But don’t weep for Jimmie. He has etched his name indelibly in the record book. Nobody had ever done what he did and nobody will ever do it again.
And he’s not going anywhere; Johnson is in his prime. He has lots of races and plenty more wins ahead of him. He could even have more championships in his future – just not five more in a row.
That record is safe forever. There will never be a “Mr. Six-Time.”
Larry Woody can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.