The view from atop Rattlesnake Hill, a great place to ponder NASCAR and its future.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
You've gotta feel for Jimmie Johnson.
Gosh, has it really been nearly three years since he last won the NASCAR championship?
No, it's not that.
The deal is Jimmie Johnson may well be the most perfect, all-around stock car racer ever...and here he stands, on the verge of doing something only two other men in NASCAR history have done, win a sixth title...and yet.....
Richard Petty...Dale Earnhardt Sr....Jimmie Johnson.
And yet there is the sense that Johnson -- though so fiercely focused, so incredibly intense, so amazingly fit that it might not be surprising if he does take up MMA, or at least the training -- isn't really getting his due.
He's a blue-collar guy. His mother drove a school bus in San Diego. His father worked two jobs.
Nobody gave him a free ride here.
When Johnson first showed up in NASCAR, as a Busch (now Nationwide) driver in 2000, well, he didn't impress anyone. And when he was being interviewed for this Cup ride with Rick Hendrick in late 2001, Johnson was pretty much something of a gamble.
A gamble that has certainly paid off.
Consider this: with just a few twists of luck and fate, Jimmie Johnson could very easily be going for his 12th straight NASCAR championship. He has been a championship contender every season. In fact, his first season, 2002, Johnson was leading the points coming out Kansas in the fall, with only seven races to go.
His secret? An uncanny ability to deal with stress and difficult situations and never panic.
When it comes to NASCAR cool, there is nobody better at it than this guy...as he showed just two weeks ago at Martinsville.
"We're not immune," he insists. "We're human and deal with all the same stress anybody competing for a championship goes through.
"Through the years of winning championships we've learned how to manage stress much better, and find a way to enjoy the pressure and enjoy the stress.
"We've lost some interesting close championship battles (just a year ago, in fact), which have been interesting character builders... although they hurt badly, and it's not a fun month or two following that experience.
"But there's a lesson to learn from everything, and I always try to find something to learn."
Jimmie Johnson, thumbs up, Round Nine (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And now it's Round Nine, Johnson versus Matt Kenseth. Jeff Burton, once Kenseth's teammate, says, "they are very similar in how they race -- both quietly aggressive, both clean drivers, both very committed to the sport. They are a lot alike.
"I don't know Jimmie nearly as well off the track, but Matt is a smart ass; we all know that...and he knows that too. He claims he learned it from me, but I don't think that is true.
"They are both good people. They both have values you can be proud of. They are the kind of people that when they win championships you are proud that they represent the sport."
That may be the lead story here, but it's just one of the stories this weekend, as the Sprint Cup tour winds down in its final days.
-- For just about everyone except Johnson and Kenseth, it's already 2014.
That big test of possible new rules is less than 30 days away -- Merry Christmas.
Daytona 500 testing is less than 30 days after that -- Happy New Year.
And if NASCAR's internal thinking about what to do for 2014 is as muddled and topsy-turvy as crews in the garage here sense, well, the off-season may not be much of an off-season for these crews.
Then again, as Jimmie Johnson points out, "change is opportunity." And few if any others can rise to such opportunity as quickly as Rick Hendrick's huge mega-team, with all its satellite engineering operations.
Can Matt Kenseth pull it off? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- If Johnson pulls off Number Six next Sunday evening at Homestead, Fla., well, throw enough new rules out there on the table and he'll be a favorite to take Number Seven one year from now.
Perhaps the only problem with Jimmie Johnson is that he never seems vulnerable, he rarely if ever appears on the ropes. If he does have a weakness, few if any have found it and been able to exploit it.
He's NASCAR's Superman.
The gold standard.
And he's a thoughtful, polished spokesman for the sport...almost too nice a guy at times. Bruton Smith says he's like to see Jimmie get so hopping mad that he leaps from his car and punches a rival driver in the face.
But Johnson doesn't wear his emotions like that.
And that's just another piece of his armor.
Jimmie Johnson may not be invincible in this game. But he's the man you've got to beat if you want to be the champion. To be the man, you've got to beat the man.
And Jimmie Johnson is the man.
It's nearing time to turn out the lights, because this party is just about over (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- But is this Jimmie Johnson/Rick Hendrick juggernaut really good for the sport?
That is a major story here too as this season comes to a close.
In fact, this weekend, for some reason, comes with a sense of melancholy as much as excitement, when walking around the garage and talking to crews. Inside many teams there is a growing sense of foreboding. For one, how many of these guys will be losing their jobs before the new season starts?
This sport seems on the cusp of some changes, for better or worse isn't clear.
Crowds have been way off lately.
TV ratings are so-so.
NASCAR's iron fist of penalties has turned off some people, and scared drivers themselves into being afraid to speak their mind.
The prospect of yet another Jimmie Johnson championship may not be the most exciting thing in the minds of many fans. And the prospect of yet another boring race hangs in the air.
Yes, this sport, and it may not be alone, has become a made-for-television series. And that new $8Billion TV deal is spectacular.
Yet things still don't seem quite right.
And on center stage, the much-hyped 2013 stockers haven't really lived up to the marketing.
When Jimmie Johnson can blow away the field as he did at Texas last weekend, and this sport is playing to the smallest crowd ever at that mammoth stadium, it should be time for reflection.
So now it's 'tweaking time' for the 2013s....though it's not really clear that the cars themselves are the problem. Maybe bonus points for donuts or leading laps could change the dynamic.
Ageless Mark Martin...says he's finally aging out (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jeff Burton says the 2013s are "an improvement over last year's car. Watching races I think it's proven to be better.
"I still think there is a step to go.
"I'm guilty of comparing what we do today to what we did 15 years ago, but I think that's irrelevant. What we really need to be looking at is what do people want to see today?
"Sometimes we defend the racing today by saying 'Well, it's better than it was 10 years ago.'
"But that doesn't matter, because today's fans are today's fans.
"Fans want to see more action. They want to see more intense racing.
"The only way to do that is to get the cars closer together."
Which would probably mean dealing somehow with that dreaded aero-push and the difficultly a trailing car has in drafting up on the lead car.
"The definition of what better racing is -- that is where the problem comes in.
"What NASCAR has to do is ask 'What is NASCAR all about?'
"That should be close racing. Tire marks down the side of cars is cool. That kind of close racing is what we need to be pushing for, but it is hard to do.
"We have got to find a way to have cars that can be closer together and can race harder, to put on more exciting racing."
Jeff Burton (R) and former teammate Matt Kenseth: the future's about to change for both of them, in some way...(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- Another major story here:
Mark Martin, who first made his mark in this league back in 1981, says he's finally ready to hang it up, at 54.
Ageless Mark Martin, whose physical fitness regime is legendary.
Over his career Martin has personified 'the good guy' in this sport. Magnanimous, perhaps to a fault at time. For a while, too pessimistic about some things....though these last few years he's learned the art of smiling and keeping happy.
Martin, remember, first announced his 'retirement' from full-time racing back in 2006. Said he wanted to take a break, cut back. Since then, he's run another 206 races. Including that marvelous 2009 season in which Martin won five times and came within a hair -- yet again -- of winning the championship.
His legacy will be as much for his grace and style and 'code of conduct' as for his prowess on the track.
-- Jeff Burton, who is making his 1,000th career start here Sunday. Burton, at 46, says he's still got plans to race some more in 2014, but still won't say just what or with who.
His last great season was 2008, when he was in the thick of the title fight right down to final five races.
In considering some of all this, it is still a major indictment of this sport's leaders that NASCAR-Daytona has been unable to keep this sport's finances and power elite under any control -- and, parallel, that some of its biggest stars -- Darrell Waltrip, Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott, to name just a few -- have been unable to make a go of it as team owners or owner-drivers.
Perhaps NASCAR-Daytona has acquiesced with Detroit manufacturers in this sad state of affairs. Maybe this sport isn't really a sport but just another business where efficiencies are more important than integrity and fairness. Hey, nobody ever said NASCAR racing was all about fair play.
But here this weekend, this very weekend, we should remind this sport's bosses about all this.
With just two words:
Alan Kulwicki was the personification of what NASCAR racing should be all about. A man fighting against the odds not only to make a go of it here but to succeed.
Alan Kulwicki, who died in 1993 just months after winning the Winston Cup championship in one of this sport's epic battles, won the very first big league Cup race here, 25 years ago.
Alas, in today's NASCAR, Alan Kulwicki would have a tough time just making it to the starting gate.
Alan Kulwicki (R) getting congrats from Bill Elliott, moments after their furious duel to the 1992 Winston Cup championship, in the season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway
"Alan and I raced late models in Wisconsin for years," Martin recalls, of those days when the American Speed Association was training ground for so many future NASCAR stars.
"For a couple of years we shared a building that had a wall between us. He was on the other side of the wall with his stuff while we battled for an ASA championship.
"We had interesting times. We were good friends. We were competitors and borderline rivals throughout all of those battles.
"Alan came down and stayed with me in Charlotte when I was racing in NASCAR already. He came down to the Charlotte race, stayed at my house to meet people in NASCAR. He was an interesting guy....
"Here's a good example -- Driving across town, I'm kind of on the chip all the time, and Alan was kind of on idle, except when he raced the car.
"He was following me to the track the first morning. We stop at a traffic light. The light changed, I drive through... and he just sits there in the middle of the road. He's reading the paper and forgets to look up.
"But that was Alan Kulwicki... and it drove me crazy because I'm on the chip.
"It was an amazing time in racing when a guy could -- with his bare hands -- make it from wanting to be a driver to becoming a NASCAR champion.
"I mean he pretty much did it with his bare hands. And I was able to witness that. It was pretty cool.
"I don't see that happening in this era. Even if someone did it, it wouldn't be with their bare hands; it would be building with really smart people.
"Alan did it in an era when you could do it by yourself, if you were determined enough, and smart enough, and good enough.
"I don't think there is someone with the combination of all three today to ever even get near being able to do something like that."
Once, and not really so long ago, NASCAR's Brian France had a goal of shaping this sport so that another Alan Kulwicki might come along.
For whatever reason, that dream has languished.
Burton, one of the sharpest blades in the NASCAR garage, realizes that team ownership, however it's set up, is no longer an option for him:
"Do I look dumb?"
And Burton laughs.
"There was a time I really thought that would be an option for me," Burton goes on. "But in the environment we have today, I don't know how a small guy could have a Cup team that would be a formidable force.
"My pockets aren't deep enough.
"Jack Roush talked to me one time about 'the money tree.' If he had to, he could turn 'the money tree' on and create money for the investment until the investment had time to pay off.
"If you can't do that as a car owner, I don't think you can be an effective car owner.
"So for me, in today's world, there may be room for me as part of an ownership group... but to be the primary owner would be farfetched."
Of course the 'good ol' days' had their downers too, as Burton well recalls.
In his Busch debut in 1988 he blew two engines that first day: "I had gone to the bank and borrowed money to buy an engine, and it blew up after qualifying. Hubert Hensley said 'Hey, man, I've got an engine if you need it.'
"We went to his shop that night, had to put a Chevy engine in. We ran that engine for those two laps and it blew up. Yes, I remember it vividly -- It took me about three years to pay that damn engine off. No, it took me longer than that. It took me like five years to pay that engine off."
Now that's some roots racin'.
So when NASCAR executives huddle up over the winter and look ahead to 2014, maybe they ought to be sitting in a room with Alan Kulwicki's picture hanging on the wall.
And maybe Jeff Burton needs a seat at that table, to offer some common sense.
A Phoenix sunset is a sight to behold (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)