Johnson doing a lot better than NASCAR


Only an idiot would have picked someone other than Jimmie Johnson or Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon to win the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

And guess what idiot did just that in January?

Yours truly, of course.

My pick was Kyle Busch, who made me look like a genius with eight wins before the 10-race Chase for the Cup started.

I had Johnson fifth behind Busch, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Gordon. Well, Kurt didn't make the Chase, and his brother has fallen to 11th with Gordon seventh and Kenseth eighth.

Johnson needs only to finish 36th or better in Sunday's finale in Homestead, Fla., to win his third consecutive championship. Had Kurt Busch not edged Johnson by eight points for the 2004 championship, Johnson would be going for his fourth title in five years.

Johnson hasn't gotten the respect he deserves as the best driver with the best team in the series. I plead guilty to the charge of selling him short.

But a bigger act of disrespect to Johnson and the Cup series came Sunday when two race stoppages, including one for rain, pushed ABC's coverage beyond its projected time allotment. The finish of the race was unceremoniously switched to ESPN2, which did nothing for those taping the race and others who do not have access to ESPN2. (The West Coast was not affected.)

Johnson was leading when the switch was made, and he ran away with the race. Had Carl Edwards crashed or lost an engine over the 34-lap segment moved to ESPN2, it would have deprived many fans of the opportunity to watch Johnson's coronation.

This came at a time when NASCAR needs to reassure sponsors that the Cup series is an elite major league sport. The move by ABC indicates where live race coverage falls on its list of priorities.

These are precarious times for American carmakers. The call by ABC was ill-timed.

Despite a woeful economic environment for Chevrolet, Toyota and Ford, they have no plans to leave the Cup series. They have combined to win 31 of 35 Cup races (Chevrolet 11, Toyota 10, Ford 10). Dodge's future -- it won four races -- is the most tenuous.

Parity, however, hasn't been enough to increase ticket sales and TV viewership. Both have dipped, but not nearly as badly as the stock market.

Some Cup teams have taken on investors to shore up marketing efforts and provide an influx of cash. Roush Racing is now Roush Fenway Racing; Evernham Motorsports has become Gillett Evernham Motorsports; and fabled Petty Enterprises sold off part of the family business to Boston Ventures, an investment firm with a background in turning around struggling companies.

This means three major racing operations that often let their passion for racing guide their business plans have reverted to a bottom-line approach by bean counters unfamiliar with racing.

This trend brings to mind the mid-1980s, when too many fat cats thought building a 1.5-mile oval was the direct route to getting Cup races and $30 million paydays. That's why Pikes Peak International Raceway near Colorado Springs, Colo., was built along with the Kentucky Speedway oval. Pikes Peak failed and has been relegated to a test track, and Kentucky reverted to a failed lawsuit in its bid for a Cup race.

It's hard to bemoan financial challenges facing team owners and racing series when thousands of autoworkers seem to be getting laid off each week. And soon, hundreds within the NASCAR garages are expected to get pink slips.

NASCAR and other racing series are caught in the middle. NASCAR and its track owners, however, continue to graze in very green pastures.

This might be a great time for Johnson, but it isn't for the rest of the series. Or its teams.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com. Visit Wolf's motor sports blog at lvrj.com/blogs/heavypedal/ throughout the week.

 

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