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Johnson deserves credit if he wins 3rd straight title

by Kathy Elliott
Friday, November 07, 2008

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Johnson celebrates win in Richmond
There's a lot of talk going around right now about the chances of Jimmie Johnson winning his third consecutive Sprint Cup Series championship, an almost impossible feat. This has inspired plenty of discussion on the Chase for the Sprint Cup in general and whether or not the format needs revising to prevent any one driver from gaining the sort of commanding points lead which Johnson has enjoyed for much of the championship run.

Would we even having this conversation if another driver -- oh, let's just say Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for the sake of argument -- had pulled out to such a commanding lead in the Chase? Probably not.

Three championships in a row in any sport is a rare and impressive accomplishment, but it does happen. In NASCAR's highest level, it has happened exactly once.

When major sports records are on the brink of being tied or broken, showers of media attention fall down like rain on the heads of the guys who are sniffing around the borders of the fence. The record holders on the other side, who have usually retired and gone onto become analysts, coaches or grandparents, are dusted off and polished up. We hear about their career stats, and we see a lot of their highlight reels on "SportsCenter" and pre-game shows. 

Suddenly, as we get a look at the achievements of these star athletes who may have played their games and enjoyed their successes before some of us were even born, we have an epiphany of sorts: Oh, so that's what all the fuss is about.

Barry Bonds, for example, broke Henry Aaron's home run record in 2007 near the end of a career spent traveling on private jets, his well-insured hands barely ink-stained from the rigors of signing multi-million dollar contracts. Aaron, on the other hand, managed to hammer his record-setting 755 home runs while suffering the indignities of racism in the 1960s and '70s, including hate mail and death threats.

This is a notable example, but far from an isolated one. As professional sports have changed and evolved and become the massive financial conglomerates they are today, the athletes have by necessity changed with them. Guys who went to work 30 years ago and played their games or raced their cars, then went home to a normal family life without the added commitments of TV commercials, magazine photo shoots and endless talk show appearances have become anomalies. They are the topics of documentaries with titles like "Remember When" or "Days Gone By."

Their stories seem quaint and charming to us now. For example, I once heard a former driver tell the story of driving down to Daytona Beach to race, and having to dig loose change from the seat cushions of his car in order to pay a highway toll. He came up about 13 cents short, but thanks to the largesse of the toll booth operator, still managed to make the race. His winnings paid for his gas to drive back home. On the way, he stopped and paid the balance due on the toll.

That driver, by the way, was Cale Yarborough, the only man in history -- so far -- to win three consecutive Cup Series championships.

South Carolina native Cale Yarborough, with 85 career wins, ranks No. 5 on the all-time NASCAR winners' list. He won the Daytona 500 four times.

Yarborough won 10 races in 1974. He finished every race in 1977; can you imagine any driver completing a season without a single DNF nowadays? His championship runs came in 1976, '77 and '78. In 1984, he became the first driver to qualify for the Daytona 500 with a top speed of more than 200 miles per hour. He ran his final season in 1988, retiring at the end of that year. He is now a landowner and businessman in South Carolina.

The vast majority of NASCAR fans, even the brand new ones, have some awareness of Yarborough. A local racing legend in the South, Yarborough literally fought his way into the national spotlight after an infield brawl with Bobby and Donnie Allison following the 1979 Daytona 500. Coincidentally, this was the first race ever broadcast flag-to-flag on national television. The controversial finish -- Donnie and Cale wrecked on the last lap -- and the ensuing fisticuffs really made America sit up and pay attention to what was, at the time, still a very young and unknown sport. He was, and remains, one of the superstars of NASCAR.

Only the most remarkable of drivers could ever hope to win three championships in a row. Richard Petty never did it. Neither did Dale Earnhardt or David Pearson. Jeff Gordon hasn't been able to manage it, either. But Jimmie Johnson, a most remarkable driver indeed, now sits poised to share the spot that Yarborough has occupied alone for so many years.

It has become customary in sports, when a record is on the brink of falling, to have the original record holder present and watching, coming out to graciously congratulate the man who matches or surpasses him as the TV cameras roll.

But Yarborough, when asked how he felt about Johnson's pursuit of his record, said something along the lines of, "I guess I wouldn't much mind if he breaks it ... but I won't be pulling for him." It's nice to know there are a few NASCAR champions out there who still refuse to pull those punches.

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