[media-credit name=”Simon Scoggins” align=”alignleft” width=”300″][/media-credit]“A champion is as a champion does in all things. The way he walks. The way he talks. The way he presents himself. The way he treats those that can not advance his cause. Every champion knows that the only true defeat is a victory without honor.” – R.C. Liggett
Today we saw a very distinct and defining view of the three championship contenders. They are three very different competitors and very different personalities. But which one will truly represent our sport with the class and dignity of a true champion?
Until the race concludes in Homestead next week, Jimmie Johnson is the series champion. He is a four time series champion. He has represented our sport with class and graciousness for four years. There are many who say his time is up. Let someone else win. However, Jimmie Johnson is not willing to just step aside.
Jimmie has handled the pressure with the same grace that he has handled wearing super man’s cape. He has gone out and raced his way back into contention. Granted his crew has faded late in the year and has seemed to struggle throughout the year.
Through the challenges of mind games from Mike Ford and Denny Hamlin, challenges on the track, and struggles in the pits, Johnson has kept his cool. Today was no different. He managed his fuel mileage with coaching from Chad Knaus and made it work. His composure kept him in the championship run. Had he panicked or refused to listen to Chad, he would have been out of the running. The true display of trust and confidence came when on the next to the last lap, Chad said, “Let the 29 go if you have to but stay smooth.” With the 29 closing fast in his mirror, Jimmie Johnson did just that. It was that consistent smooth rhythm that kept him ahead of the 29 and within striking distance of the 11 come Miami.
The points leader is Denny Hamlin. He leads both Johnson and Harvick by a total of 46 points. In 1991, Rusty Wallace was quoted as saying there is a difference between cocky and confident. Anyone can talk the talk but the man that gets the job done, well that is confidence.”
Denny Hamlin has backed up all of his predictions as though he were reading from a script. He and crew chief have played head games with the best. Everything from choosing the pit stall in front of the champions, to talking trash in the media. Up until today, it appeared that maybe it was working.
But fuel mileage threw a monkey wrench into Hamlin’s cake walk. Hamlin stated that his fuel mileage had been excellent all year and he didn’t understand why it was so bad today. He didn’t know whether his crew chief was being conservative or whether he really couldn’t make it. This translates to It wasn’t my fault it was the crews fault that we didn’t have enough to make it.
Hamlin’s frustration was illustrated by his in car camera when he threw his gloves. Hit the instrument panel, slammed the steering wheel and threw a bottle of water at a crew member who had handed him the bottle of cold water when he got out of the car. When he did his post race TV interview with Dr. Jerry Punch he didn’t even look at him. He didn’t look at the camera. And basically he pouted through the interview.
His behavior, based on our definition that we started with, would say that Denny is not quite ready to be a champion of our sport. “A true champion knows that the only true defeat is a victory without honor.” Denny didn’t win. He had the strongest and best car. But circumstances did not play out in his favor. But he lost with honor. He did not lose with dignity.
Kevin Harvick and his Gil Martin lead Shell Chevrolet over came a huge obstacle. A pit road mistake found Harvick returning to pit road to place a missing lug nut. Harvick, who is famous for his temper and berating his crew over mistakes, kept silent. He would state later that he said nothing because his crew had been so good the last few races and things happen.
It was that missing lug nut that kept Harvick in the running. By returning to pit road and then stopping for 2 tires Harvick had 10 laps more fuel than his competitors. He came up through the field methodically. He kept the fenders on the car. He kept the car pointed towards the start finish line and he kept his foot on the floor. Again, as with Johnson smooth and steady wins the war. Although he didn’t catch and pass the 48, he did cement himself into the final race for the championship next week.
Harvick’s temper is legendary. His aggressiveness is well documented on and off the track. As is his sense of humor and his relationship with the fans. Harvick is quick study. He is a great driver and he has a great sense of what it means to lead the sport and he has an experienced car owner to help him climb those ropes and learn the road of a champion.
Jimmie Johnson summed up the race in Miami best when he called it a “one race winner takes all shootout.” But this is no ordinary winner takes all race. This is the Sprint Cup Championship. This is a half a million bucks to win the race and then somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 million dollars to win the championship plus the champion’s purse share next year. This winner takes all defines the term. And if history holds true and the personalities we have seen to date from the three contenders stay true to form, it fits Harvick’s style the best.
Aggressive, hard charging, not afraid to bend the sheet metal, and gutsy enough to keep charging with a less than perfect car describe Kevin Harvick’s driving style and season to a T. But will he win?
Jimmie Johnson has not won 4 championships being a quitter. He knows the odds. He has faced them in the past though not recently. And he has one of the very best in the business sitting on that pit box every week. They say it’s easier to find a job when you have a job and Jimmie Johnson has a job. He is the Sprint Cup Champion taking it away from him may not be nearly as easy as the points might make it look.
Winning this championship will take not only bravado. It will take skill. It will take patience. It will take calculation. And most of all it will take a cool head. Those are all traits that we have not seen as of yet from Denny Hamlin. Although he has a 3 point lead going into Miami that is like having a stop stick to stop a train. That train I believe is Jimmie Johnson.
Next week is not here yet and while it may be anyone’s game, experience and grace under pressure will most likely ultimately prevail. The head games have started, Denny Hamlin and Mike Ford started them, but I believe that Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus will finish them at the head table in Vegas.
Congratulations to Carl Edwards on his sweep of the weekend at Phoenix in the Nationwide Series and the Cup series. Hard fought and well deserved wins. Welcome back to Victory Lane Carl. You were missed. It was a very very thing classy to share your victory celebration with the fans. Congratulations to Todd Bodine on clinching the Camping World Truck Series Championship. Congratulations to Clint Bowyer on his Camping World Truck Series win.
That said, to all the competitors in all the series thanks for giving us everything you have to give, you are our heroes. Most importantly, thanks to all the families who shared their loved ones with us so we could cheer our favorite driver and favorite teams. You are the true heroes of the sport and we are forever in your debt.