After a caution flag with about 25 laps to go in the Daytona 500, two lines of cars formed -- one on the high groove of the track, one on the low. Nobody had gained ground from the low groove all day. But this time, Jimmie Johnson was at the front of the line. And if you've watched much NASCAR over the past few years, you probably knew: This race was over.
"At the end, when I knew it was time to go … I had a race car with no scratches on it," Johnson said.
Jimmie Johnson plus a clean car usually means everybody else can go home. He has 61 wins over 11-plus years in NASCAR's Cup series. He won five straight Sprint Cup titles from 2006-10. He has the second-most wins of any active driver (to Jeff Gordon's 87), and the eighth-most all-time. And he has done it in a remarkable way: without putting any particular stamp of personality on his sport.
That doesn't matter, or it shouldn't. Greatness is its own stamp. And it's not like Johnson intends to be a mystery. You can find out things about him. (His car is number 48, so he likes to wake up at the 48th minute of the hour.) But compared to Roger Federer or Tiger Woods or Tom Brady -- Johnson's peer group, in the way he has dominated his sport -- he's barely known at all.
If Vince McMahon got ahold of Johnson, he'd make a fantastic NASCAR villain. He grew up in California, not Dixie. He lives at least part of the year in New York City. He vacations in the Hamptons. Give him a cup of tea to sip during the race and you could get some serious Jean Girard action going. The truth is, NASCAR drivers (and many NASCAR fans) are a lot more cosmopolitan as a whole now -- there aren't many Ricky Bobbys out there anymore. But even in that group, Johnson is a man of the world. Yet he still doesn't stand out.
I've decided it's the way he drives. Most of NASCAR's greatest drivers had such distinctive styles that fans could've spotted them without the numbers. David Pearson played possum in the back of the pack until the last few laps. Dale Earnhardt bumped and pushed and passed in the grass. Johnson's style is invisible, I think, because it's flexible. The NASCAR season has tracks of different lengths and shapes and surfaces. The two-and-a-half-mile track at Daytona makes for a vastly different race than the half-mile at Bristol. Johnson's genius is driving the way the track demands and the way his car tells him to. He's like a tennis player who can win on hard courts or grass or clay. There aren't many.
Daytona turned out to be a race that favored the grinders. One big wreck early took out Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick, two of the favorites. But after that, except for a few small cautions, the cars settled into the same high line and stayed there. It wasn't the most exciting race there ever was. But after the terrible crash in a prelim race Saturday, that seemed OK. Besides, the storylines were building. Brad Keselowski, last year's Sprint Cup champ, was in the lead. Dale Earnhardt Jr., still the fans' favorite, was in the lead pack. And best of all, story-wise, Danica Patrick, who won the pole, was sitting in the top three.
But Johnson took that low groove, and with every lap he crept a few yards closer to the lead. On lap 186 of 200, he pulled ahead. He and Keselowski traded the lead until one last caution on lap 190. There were six laps left when the pace car pulled off the track, and Johnson immediately moved in front.
Nothing he did would make you jump up and holler in those last six laps. It's what he didn't do. He didn't go high and he didn't go low. He stayed in between, and that way none of the cars in either groove could get around him. It was a tricky bit of driving -- to stay out of the established lines around the track, yet still run fast enough to win.
Jimmie Johnson did it. He did it the way he has always done it. He cut his own groove.
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