When Jimmie Johnson visits the track media center each week, he is introduced by NASCAR’s Kerry Tharp as the “2009 Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year.”
It has become his unofficial title and a running joke that always brings a chuckle from both Johnson and the media.
But the award Johnson won last year was a significant accomplishment for both the driver and NASCAR, demonstrating just how rare and special his fourth straight Sprint Cup championship was.
Winning four straight Cup titles is arguably the greatest achievement in NASCAR history and one of the greatest feats in modern sports history. Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports team joined such sports dynasties as the New York Yankees, Boston Celtics, Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders as elite organizations that won four straight championships.
It was a feat that makes Johnson a first-ballot Hall of Famer and that should be honored and recognized for years to come.
But it needs to end.
For the sake of the sport.
Sorry, Jimmie, but NASCAR needs a new Sprint Cup champion.
Johnson has been an admirable champion. He has carried himself and represented the sport with the utmost class. You would be hard-pressed to find a more professional or more respected champion in any sport.
Yet, for some inexplicable reason, the majority of fans have not embraced Johnson. They have grown tired of his reign at the top of the sport and are desperate for a new champion.
Declining TV ratings and fan interest during the Chase are telling signs that folks are eager for a new champion.
Ratings during the Chase began to dip two years ago when Johnson was in the midst of winning his third straight title. They were down again – compared to the regular season – last year and have plummeted this year.
Clearly, fans have grown tired of watching Johnson master the Chase and deliver one championship-winning performance after another, no matter how impressive and remarkable the feat.
Now is the time for it to stop.
Johnson is back on top of the points standings and is in prime position to win a mind-boggling fifth straight title.
But Johnson suddenly faces the stiffest challenge during his four-year reign.
Spunky young star Denny Hamlin trails Johnson by just 14 points. Wily veteran Kevin Harvick is just 38 points back.
It is the closest points race in Chase history, and both Hamlin and Harvick have legitimate shots to outrun Johnson over the final three races and win the title.
A triumph by either would be good for the sport.
Both Hamlin and Harvick are brash, cocky, fierce competitors that bring a bit of an edge – and sometimes controversy – to the sport.
They won’t be a sure bet to always be on their best behavior and always shed the sport in the best light as champion, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Johnson’s unpopular reign has shown that fans want a bit more spunk and a lot more personality.
Johnson is often accused of being too vanilla and lacking personality. That’s unfair, but it’s clear that his clean-cut, nice-guy routine has grown old among many fans.
NASCAR needs a more outspoken, edgier champion that is not so prone to the politically correct sponsor speak that has robbed the sport of its character and flair.
But more than anything, NASCAR just needs a fresh face as champion.
That’s not meant to slight Johnson or diminish his historic achievements. The idea that so many are pulling against him, in fact, is motivation for him to thumb his nose at everyone by winning a fifth straight title.
But at a time when NASCAR fans – and sports fans in general – are getting harder and harder to please, NASCAR needs a new champion and a fresh face to spark renewed interest.