Originally Published: November 29, 2016 11:01 p.m.
“It’ll never happen again,” - Tim Hardin (Tim Hardin 1, 1966)
Move over, Richard Petty. You too, Dale Earnhardt Sr. Make room for Jimmie Johnson.
The Mount Rushmore of NASCAR now includes three names after Johnson won his record-tying seventh Sprint Cup Championship at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. With the win, Johnson joins The King, Petty, and The Intimidator, Earnhardt Sr., as the only drivers in history to achieve that lofty goal. And Johnson, the youngest of the three to win seven and the only active driver with more than one, may not be done. At 41, Johnson has the time, health, focus and team resources to win more titles.
Petty still holds one record that no one, including Johnson, will ever match, the all-time win total. The King accumulated 200 wins over a 35-year career, almost double the next highest total of 105 held by David Pearson. But those wins came in another era, when anyone with a stock car and spare change could show up at the track on Sunday and gain entry into a race. Petty always had greater financial support and superior equipment than other drivers which allowed him to dominate the competition. Johnson has won 80 races in 16 years during a much more competitive era, one where NASCAR has effectively leveled the playing field.
Furthermore, all of Johnson’s titles have come during the so-called Chase Era, a 10-race playoff format designed to mimic other sports, rather than the previous system where the champion was the driver who accumulated the most points during the entire 36-race season. The Chase format has been tweaked several times in an effort to make it even more difficult to survive those 10 races and finish on top.
Johnson’s latest title couldn’t have come at a better time for NASCAR. The sport has been beset with a number of challenges this year. Sprint announced two years ago that 2016 would be its last year as title sponsor after a 13-year run. The sport is rumored to be seeking a 10-year, $1 billion guarantee from a successor but the search has been painfully slow. NASCAR Chair & CEO Brian France admitted in his annual state-of-the-sport press conference prior to the Homestead-Miami race that the process was “taking a little longer than I thought.” Recent speculation has focused on Monster Energy as one of the finalists but the company has been non-committal.
The lack of a title sponsor three months before the Daytona 500 kicks off the 2017 season isn’t the only issue facing NASCAR. The sport has experienced a steady decline in attendance and television ratings. In fairness, NASCAR isn’t alone in that regard. Even the NFL, the premier sports property in the country, has seen its ratings decline significantly this year. In order to protect its image, NASCAR doesn’t announce track attendance figures, something that only a sport controlled by one family – the Frances – could get away with. But it’s no secret that both attendance and ticket revenue have been trending downward since 2010. Fortunately, the sport’s financial health is relatively secure thanks to the 10-year, $8.2 billion combined deal signed with NBC and FOX in 2013. However, a number of races have been moved off the major networks and onto cable channels.
The sport also faces uncertainty on the track heading into next season. Tony Stewart, one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR and winner of three titles, is retiring after 13 seasons. Even more problematic for NASCAR is the uncertainty surrounding the status of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior, winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award for 13 consecutive years, suffered from the after effects of concussions this year and ran only half the schedule. While all signs point to him being back in a race car at the start of the 2017 season, all bets are off when it comes to concussions. The sport can hardly afford to lose his presence at this crucial point in time.
Without Stewart, and possibly Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR is fortunate to have Johnson in the fold. Going for his eighth title will be the season-long story every season until he either eclipses Petty and Earnhardt Sr. or he retires. As the title of the late, great Tim Hardin song suggests, winning seven titles, let alone a possible eighth, “It’ll never happen again.”
Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.