When I watch a NASCAR race, I don’t have a favorite; I just want to see a competitive race. But lately, I have found myself patronizing the sport in a different way. The number one thing I’m rooting for, it seems, is for Jimmie Johnson not to win.
As I watched the final few laps of the Coke Zero 400 Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, I had a feeling that it was going to happen again. I tried to think that it might be different this time, but alas, I was wrong.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit is not competitive right now. Yes, other drivers win races, but the more significant events have turned into Johnson infomercials. It almost seems as if Johnson has the ability to decide whether or not he wants to win the race.
Don’t get me wrong; Johnson ran a near a perfect race Saturday, and he navigated the Daytona 500 masterfully as well in February. This is not a complaint with Johnson. It is a plea for other NASCAR teams and drivers to make the sport competitive.
Saturday night, he became the first driver in 31 years to sweep the two Daytona races in a single season. Bobby Allison did it 31 years ago. But NASCAR is much different today than it was then. To maintain the interest of the public, there needs to be competition and rivalry.
Jimmie Johnson winning is great for Jimmie Johnson, but the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series needs to develop some competitiveness at the top. He has no pronounced rival at the moment. Some of the drivers are too old; others have not had enough experience.
Each sport is unique because of the differences in the challenges and skill sets required to excel in each one. But being able to accurately predict the outcome midway through a sporting event of any kind does not bode well for it.
Sometimes it can work in the sport’s favor. For example, viewers might tune in to see if the champ will lose. But I don’t think that is the key for NASCAR. For one thing, Johnson is not a very good villain. It would increase the level of entertainment if Johnson was a rogue driver who took what he wanted on the track before speaking his mind in post-race press conferences. Instead, he follows the pattern of many modern-day, individual-sport athletes by delivering the company line with a smile.
Maybe a new group of drivers will emerge and rival Johnson, but until that happens, I can see overall interest in the sport dropping significantly.