Are we really coming up on 10 years since Jeff Gordon last won a championship in NASCAR's premier division? Are we really approaching a decade since he climbed out of his car on that fall day at Atlanta and received the series trophy for the fourth time? Has that much time really passed since Gordon last sat at the head table during the postseason banquet?
It seems difficult to believe, and not because it all feels like it occurred so recently. It feels like it happened ages ago.
A few days in Las Vegas, where NASCAR recently celebrated its Champion's Week, has a way of making time stand absolutely still. There are no clocks or windows in casinos, everything is open 24 hours a day, and it always feels like 2 in the morning. You can sit down at a blackjack table and suddenly be unsure if you've been there for minutes, hours or days. Johnson's protracted championship run has had the same effect, going on for so long that it's made time stand absolutely still, and warped all sense of relativity. Who was the last NASCAR champion before Johnson, after all? Tony Stewart? Gordon? Bobby Isaac? Fireball Roberts? Ben Hur?
Carl Edwards tried to provide some perspective last Friday night during the Sprint Cup awards ceremony: "I hope by the time my daughter is 5, somebody else will have won the title," he said during his speech. It's one thing to say the guy has an unprecedented five consecutive championships. It's quite another thing to live through it.
"It's a little weird," Edwards said later, offstage. "I look up at that poster [in the banquet hall], and it's like 2006, '07, '08, '09, '10 .... There are a lot of different things in the world from 2005, you know? There really are children who are old enough to understand that Jimmie Johnson is the champion, and he's been that way their whole lives. That's weird."
Stranger still is living through that span as a competitor -- and knowing no other champion. That's the case for Denny Hamlin, who finished 39 points behind Johnson in the championship race this season. His first full-time season on NASCAR's top division was 2006, the year of Johnson's first title. He was chasing the No. 48 car then, and he still is now.
"What put it in perspective for me was Denny Hamlin saying since he's been in the sport, I've been the only champion," Johnson said after the awards ceremony. "I didn't realize that. I was like, wow, that's a long stretch. Time goes by fast in some respects, and other ways it goes by slowly, and Denny's comment on stage made me realize, wow, it has been a while."
Tell that to the men who won titles before Johnson's reign began. Stewart was the most recent, in 2005, which seems like ages ago. "Five years seems like a really long time when it comes to Jimmie winning his championships," Stewart said. Then there's Matt Kenseth, who won in 2003. In racing years, that span feels like a millennia.
"Time goes by so fast," said Kenseth, who won the last championship before the Chase era began. "It seems like forever since we won a race, much less a championship. So it does seem like a while."
And then there's Gordon, long a standard-bearer for NASCAR's premier series, and now fast approaching a full decade since his most recent title. During his address to the crowd at last Friday's banquet, Edwards joked about watching "pioneers like Jeff Gordon come up here and give speeches" and wondering what it would be like to one day to do the same. When Gordon won his last title, the series sponsor, trophy name, banquet site, and championship format were all very different than they are now. At the same time, Johnson was an unknown driver in the then-Busch Series who was about to be unearthed by -- ironically -- Gordon, who was wowed by the youngster at a Darlington test.
Asked by a reporter if he realized he was coming up on 10 years since his most recent title, Gordon feigned insult. "No, but thanks for bringing it up," he said with a laugh.
"Don't worry, I know it's been a long time," he added. "I get reminded of it. I talk enough about races and championships to remind myself of it as well. You know, it doesn't bother me as much that it's been 10 years. What bothers me is, we've never won a Sprint Cup. The Sprint Cup has challenged me in ways I didn't anticipate. It also motivates me and encourages me to work hard and get it, and I think this change with Alan is going to help us do that. When I look at the tracks that are on there, and the tracks that that 5 car seems to run good at, I think that could help us."
For next season Gordon will be paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson, who had been overseeing Mark Martin's No. 5 car, and engineered an effort that pushed Johnson to the last race of the 2009 campaign. A promising start to this season turned into a winless year and an eventual ninth-place points finish, all of which left Gordon -- who's won just once in his past 113 starts -- ruing the ones that got away, and still pursing his first title under the Chase format.
"All the opportunities we had to win that we didn't get -- Phoenix, Martinsville, Vegas, Texas -- those immediately come to mind to me," he said. "They were just races that, especially now, looking back at it, without getting a win this year, they were races I feel kind of devastated by -- that we were that good, that close, and didn't get the wins. When you hear Mark Martin say, 'I'm just so thankful to be here in Victory Lane right now, because I don't know when the next one is going to come,' it's so true. You just don't. When an opportunity is there, you have to capitalize on it, and we didn't this year."
But in the age of Jimmie Johnson, that's what happens. A mistake here, a failure to capitalize there, and the next thing you know the No. 48 team is sitting at the head table once again at the banquet. Johnson has been champion for so long, other title winners feel like ancient history. It seems there was nothing before him except for dinosaurs or wooly mammoths.
"It's frustrating," Edwards said, "because it's going to take at least six years to beat what's he's done." If Johnson is even done at all.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.