<
>

Putting Jimmie Johnson's greatness in perspectice not easy

Jimmie Johnson is holding his seventh Sprint Cup trophy because he made the right moves at the right time at Homestead. Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR/Getty Images

Regardless the sport, there are those within their field that stand above all others, kings of their mountain.

Jordan, Gretzky, Ruth and Brady are names synonymous with greatness. Each demonstrated perfection, they are athletic aristocrats, members of a noble fraternity of a chosen few who perform at a level so high it becomes the measure in their discipline for decades.

With his seventh title in 11 seasons, Jimmie Johnson has become the latest member of this exclusive group.

I'm often asked how can one driver win so often? Is it the car, the engine, the crew? It's all those things, but it's primarily the individual behind the steering wheel.

The answer to the question "what makes great" is this: The ability to extract more when it matters most under the most adverse or demanding circumstances.

That's how I would describe watching Jimmie Johnson at Homestead when he demonstrated that to perfection.

Every great athlete obeys their sports' fundamentals -- they become the foundation for your career, they ultimately support prosperity and longevity.

In auto racing, the fundamentals are car control, evaluating risk vs. reward, and anticipating opportunity and capitalizing on it.

The fundamentals keep you balanced, relevant during a grueling 10-month season.

Desire, commitment, determination and composure are what are needed to finish the job. Separate yourself from all others, close the deal.

Car control is how well, and how quickly, you process and react to your car's personality against the limits of the race track, or the obstructions created from cars around you.

Solid car control doesn't determine if you win or lose, but it certainly increases your chances.

Nobody does it better than Jimmie Johnson. He demonstrated it to perfection in the final two laps of the championship race.

Watch it. Watch it again and again if you have to. Jimmie drove two of the best laps of his life to capture a seventh title.

What did he do?

He arced the car into the turn at the precise angle, allowing speed to remain elevated, but controlled enough to maintain the perfect line to the apron. At center corner, he used enough steering input, combined with acceleration, to lean the car onto the right-rear tire -- too aggressive and his car slides toward the wall, forcing his right foot off the gas. Too cautious and he would have surrendered two or three hundred RPM from his exit and would have passed no one. He would have force himself from playing offense to playing defense, preoccupied with the rearview mirror.

Going fast is dependent on your body identifying forces of the car, delivering the info to your brain, it being processed and fed to your hands, feet and eyes.

It's a process that follows a sequence, the sequence can be sped up or slowed down depending on the individual. The best make it look and feel instinctive, without thought. It's why a chosen few are fast, very fast -- no matter where they compete.

You have to anticipate. The final restart is a perfect illustration of this. Jimmie timed it perfectly, did not spin the rear tires, executed two precise shifts and captured the lead against a superior car off the exit of Turn 2.

Anticipating a restart is predicated once again on your senses: Your peripheral vision acting like radar for any sudden appearance or acceleration; sound, because you are locked in to the sound of the car's exhaust restarting next to you; and the feel you have of the rear tires struggling between creating thrust in your car vs. breaking free of the racing surface. It's a beautiful thing when done perfectly, and ugly as hell otherwise.

Great drivers identify the limit of their car, the track, their talent and operate within a fraction of that edge all race long. They also drive 100 percent while giving the clear succinct definition of their cars balance to their team.

Few drivers can do this.

Most operate at 95 percent when evaluating their car's balance, showing an inability to drive on the extreme edge and evaluate all the factors simultaneously.

Only a few drivers in my lifetime demonstrated the ability to do it. Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt are the obvious ones. Others could do it at particular tracks. I had the gift at Martinsville. Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona and Talladega. AJ Allmendinger at Watkins Glen

All drivers have their strengths, but I can count on only one hand the drivers who could do it every week, at every kind of track.

Jimmie Johnson is one of them.

Conditioning? Drivers fail most often under these two scenarios.

First, when they become distracted; second, when they become tired. Jimmie can fall victim to distraction, it's evident the few times a year he and crew chief Chad Knaus swap audio jabs at 150 mph. But he won't tire, because he trains and he prepares, harder than anyone I know. It's an extension of his commitment to being the best.

It's not just achieving a superior physical fitness, it's about obtaining a superior mental fitness. Jimmie subscribes and adheres to it, beyond what others could imagine.

The Bottom Line

Good drivers win in great cars. Great drivers win in good cars.

The latter is what Jimmie Johnson did Sunday.

I understand all the things required to perform and compete as a race-car driver. I understand the criteria for winning races.

What I don't completely understand is this: How has Jimmie done it so damned well, so often, for so long and so much better than everyone else?