It was supposed to be one of sport’s unbreakable records.
Surely no driver, in this day of mega-teams and super-talents, could possibly win four consecutive NASCAR championships.
Winning one is tough. Winning two back-to-back is improbable. Winning three in a row? It had happened only once in the sport’s 61-year history, when Cale Yarborough pulled off a three-peat in 1976, 1977 and 1978.
When Jimmie Johnson tied Yarborough’s record last year, all the gear-head gurus said it was an incredible feat. They also said he couldn’t possibly win four.
Apparently, Jimmie didn’t get the memo.
Last Sunday, he wrapped up his fourth straight title, not only bouncing Yarborough out of the record book but making it look easy. Johnson, a fresh-faced Californian who was born the year before Yarborough won his first championship, breezed through NASCAR’s 10-race playoff virtually unchallenged.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said Johnson whose only fault is that he seems faultless. “I’m amazed myself when I reflect on what this team’s been able to accomplish.”
To put it in perspective: Not even the greatest of the great could do what Johnson did.
Seven-time champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt couldn’t win four straight. Nor could David Pearson, Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip or Jeff Gordon. And they are the giants of NASCAR. If they’re the greatest, that puts Johnson in a galaxy by himself.
Making the accomplishment all the more remarkable is the fact that Johnson won his four championships in just eight full seasons. He finished second two other years. Not a bad batting average.
There’s no secret to Johnson’s success: He’s a talented racer with the best team in history. Hendrick Motorsports is riding an unprecedented two decades of dominance. Johnson, Gordon and Mark Martin — Hendrick drivers all — were the toast of the track this season. (The fourth teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., inexplicably fizzled.)
Johnson also enjoyed some incredibly good luck during the four-year streak. He had a knack for being at the right place at the right time.
Sometimes you wondered if he was riding a Chevy, a rocket or a magic carpet. But luck counts in racing just as in life. In sports, the teams with the most talent tend to have the best luck.
And so as the sun sets on another season, a pleasant, courteous, unassuming young man stands where no other race driver has stood. And remember, Johnson is just 34, in his prime.
The question once was whether he could win four championships in a row. Now the question is, will he ever lose another one?
Woody is a Nashville sports writer who has covered racing since the early 1970s.