Chasing NASCAR history

DEAN MCNULTY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:39 AM ET

When Jimmie Johnson steps up to accept his fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship trophy at Homestead Miami Speedway, it will signify far more than a name and number in a record book.

It will cement Johnson among the greatest race car drivers ever to compete in stock car racing. It also will elevate him to a notch above his much-honoured teammate and mentor, Jeff Gordon.

While both will have their name etched on the championship four times, only Johnson will have it four times in a row.

Gordon still will go down in NASCAR lore as the driver that dragged the series -- kicking and screaming -- out of its southeast American roots to international prominence.

What was once a regional phenomenon now is -- thanks largely to Gordon's talent and commercial appeal -- viewed by most in the racing business as the pinnacle in world-wide autosports.

Even the snooty Formula One types look over -- green with envy -- at the popular support garnered by these high-octane daredevils.

But what Johnson has done -- on the race track -- is really even more outstanding.

Leading up to this week's 2009 Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead, the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team has competed in 295 points races since that first one at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C, on Oct. 10, 2001.

Over that time, Johnson has won 47 times -- which translate into about three wins for every 20 races he enters. Even more impressive is that in 179 of those races -- or roughly 60% -- Johnson finished in the top 10.

So when the inevitable happens on Sunday afternoon all the talk about how boring it is that Hendrick, Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus have won again should be stopped.

This will be a day when -- 20 years from now -- race fans will say: "I remember watching one of the greatest racing feats of all time."

Second-hand rose

If there is a sad note to Johnson's accendency to icon status, it will be the portrait of Mark Martin, who in all likelihood will finish second to his HMS teammate.

At 50 years old, Martin's accomplishment should be marked with bursts of fireworks and a waterfall of champagne because after two or three -- even he can't keep count -- attempts at retiring this really will be his best and last kick at the can.

But he too, will go into the NASCAR record book on Sunday with his fifth second-place finish in the Sprint Cup series championship.

There is a popular myth around racing that drivers consider finishing second and being "the first loser." But ask any of those same driver if they would trade stats with Martin and the answer would be a resounding yes.

Martin is also a lock for a spot in NASCAR's new Hall of Fame in Charlotte. And don't cry too many tears for the sentimental favourite at the Ford 400. In his 757-race career, Martin has collected $72,757,512 US in prize money.

Not bad for a first loser.

New Schu

Rumours are flying around Europe faster than the supersonic Concorde jet that seven-time F-1 champion Michael Schumacher will be back in the series in 2010.

What sparked the talk was an article in the Spanish newspaper Diario AS that the new two-year deal Schumacher inked with Ferrari back in September is only about his services in developing a customer road car for the famed Italian carmaker. According to the story, Schumacher will give up his job as an adviser with the Ferrari F-1 team.

And when the new Mercedes-Benz team -- what was the 2009 championship Brawn GP squad -- comes on to the scene next year, Mercedes racing boss Norbert Haug has promised a huge surprise driver announcement.

So fans have started to put two and two together and have come up with Schumacher as the logical choice as the said surprise to make it -- with countryman Nico Roseberg -- an all-German super team next season.

Finish lines

The other Gordon in NASCAR's Sprint Cup -- Robby -- always has been regarded as ultratalented, yet undisciplined. But he will win a racing championship this week -- the 2009 Tecate SCORE International Off-Road Championship. Gordon is leading for both the Trophy Truck division and the Overall SCORE Desert Series ... Current F-1 champion Jenson Button is said to be close to signing with McLaren next season ... Former Champ Car World Series driver Timo Glock has been announced as Manor Grand Prix's first driver for its F-1 launch year. The 27-year-old German, who had been linked to Renault for 2010, joins Manor after two seasons with the soon-to-be disbanded Toyota team ... McLaren has inked a deal that will guarantee its engine supply deal with Mercedes-Benz for at least another six years, despite the German car company's new involvement at Brawn GP.

DEAN.MCNULTY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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