ATW: A moment of praise for the tamer of the Monster Mile

Matthew T. Thacker/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

I confess that for the longest time I failed to appreciate the Monster Mile.

In my youth, something about Dover International Speedway turned me away. Perhaps my childlike mind simply couldn’t grasp the oval’s concept – a large short track, for lack of a better term.

Dover is unlike any other track on the tour. It has all of the sense of speed found at the tour’s quickest facilities, yet it’s tight and often difficult to pass much like a short track. The two variables occasionally combine in spectacular fashion, fostering gigantic wrecks like the one that brought an end to Sunday’s AAA 400 Drive for Autism.

It took me many years to grow a love and appreciation for Dover. However, one driver has slowly changed my perspective over the past 16 seasons.

His name is Jimmie Johnson.

Appreciating Greatness

11 wins. Incredible.

During my time growing up the NASCAR through the 1990s and early 2000s I was told numerous times of the stars of old. I’d listen on each TV broadcast as that weekend’s announcers killed some downtime with discussion of each track’s winningest driver.

Most came from a previous era, and their stats were ludicrous – particularly those with 10 or more wins at one track. I’d find my six-year-old self staring wide-eyed in amazement as the camera panned to Richard Petty on the pit wall, listing his 15 wins at Martinsville Speedway, 13 victories at Richmond International Raceway or 10 triumphs at Daytona International Speedway.

No one’s done better than the legendary David Pearson at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

Having watched Darrell Waltrip in his twilight years, I’d look on in disbelief as his 12 wins at Bristol Motor Speedway were mentioned while he ran during the Bristol Night Race. I’d bask in the glory of David Pearson’s No. 21 during brief clips shown as his 10 wins at Darlington Raceway were listed off.

Until last season, I’d only ever seen one driver cross the double-digit victory threshold live – Dale Earnhardt. Often lost by those that look back on “The Intimidator” during his last win at Talladega Superspeedway in 2000 is the fact that it was his 10th Cup victory at the facility, an incredible feat given the challenge and relative unpredictability of pack racing during the 80s and particularly the 90s.

Perhaps due to my youthful obsession with numbers – I learned them from NASCAR, after all – that 10th win has stuck with me through my many years watching the sport. There’s just something about the difficult task of claiming victory at one track 10 or more times that makes those that can accomplish such a feat seem superhuman.

It’s fitting, then, that Johnson just earned his 11th at the Monster Mile.

It wasn’t pretty – he had to climb through the field to even be in contention, and benefitted from a poor restart from leader Kyle Larson and conveniently-timed caution to win in Overtime. Still, Johnson found a way to reach victory lane for the 11th time in Dover, Delaware, tying Cale Yarborough on the all-time wins list with 83 victories in the process.

It’s easy to take Johnson’s accolades for granted.

He’s claimed seven titles and 83 wins including marquee victories in the Daytona 500 (twice), Coca-Cola 600 an Brickyard 400 (four times each).

By any conceivable measure, Johnson is among the greatest to ever strap into a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car. Yet, much like the stoic Scott Dixon in the Verizon IndyCar Series, he’s never come close to reaching to popularity of a select few of his peers. In fact, one could argue he’s even been overshadowed by three of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates – Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and, recently, Chase Elliott.

Perhaps it’s because he’s quiet. Johnson doesn’t carry the swagger of a Tony Stewart or Kyle Busch. He doesn’t often speak of his accomplishments. When he does, he masks them in praise for his team and crew chief Chad Knaus.

In the past success elevated drivers to a larger-than-life stature. But in the modern world, Johnson’s quiet confidence only piques the interest of those looking for that sort of personality to begin with.

Because of that, it may take years for the NASCAR populace to come to appreciate Johnson for all he’s done in his career within the sport. The El Cajon, California native appears poised to compete for at least another handful of seasons, and nothing save for an eighth title is likely to bring him the sort of major headlines and prominence that befit a driver of his caliber until his retirement announcement.

Despite their 83 victories together, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus often fly under the rader. But their day is coming.  (HHP/Harold Hinson)

The time will come someday. Whether through a championship or a retirement ceremony, Johnson’s accomplishments will one day be appreciated for their true worth.

The many variables that are currently held against him – championships that came during the playoff era, the belief that he wins solely because of Knaus, etc. – will one day fade into distant memory, much like Petty’s often overwhelming equipment advantage against a less organized field with Petty Enterprises or the unbelievable strength of Earnhardt’s No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team in their prime.

One day, Johnson will get the same level of recognition as his Hall of Fame peers. He’s well on his way with most, and already has it from me for single-handedly helping me come to appreciate Dover, a true gem on the NASCAR tour.

Until that time comes, I’ll continue to harken back to those childhood emotions, realizing that the 41-year-old’s 11 wins at Dover and 83 wins overall speak for themselves.

One Comment

  1. Thomas

    September 3, 2017 at 3:45 am

    Great post! Have nice day ! 🙂 epezg

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