Mel Brooks once played Louis XVI in one of his zany movies and his mantra in that role was, “It’s good to be king.’’
Jimmie Johnson can probably relate to that sentiment as he and his. No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team prepare their new Chevrolets for the start of the 2010 season and the possibility of an incredible fifth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Through the first two and a half days of the annual NASCAR Media Tour, hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, each and every team we have had the opportunity to see has had Johnson and the rest of the Hendrick team on the brain.
Four consecutive titles will do that to the competition.
Mark Martin has been around the stock car sport for more than two decades and has been the series runner-up five times, including last year. He’s seen Jeff Gordon win four championships in seven years, and Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott each dominate the sport at times.
But Martin is awed by the accomplishments of Johnson, who became his teammate last year.
“I don’t recall anybody in my time putting a whuppin’ on the competition like Jimmie has,’’ Martin said Wednesday during the Media Tour visit to the Hendrick Motorsports campus in Concord. “To be real honest with you, I think he’s probably in their head more than any of those guys were.’’
That suits Johnson just fine, although he doesn’t foresee any lasting effect of his masterful, in unintentional, psyche job.
“I think it’s a short term benefit,’’ Johnson said, grinning. “In some ways, it could be bad for us. We’ve been a motivational tool for a lot of teams over the offseason the last few years. Only time will tell how it plays out.
“I’ve always been in the other position where I’ve looked up to the guy or the team on top and it’s pretty damn cool to be that person right now,’’ he added. “I’m going to enjoy it. When you get to Daytona you reset and worry about what happens there. Then we hit the downforce tracks after that. After three or four weeks in, we’ll know who the players are and what that’s going to be like. But, right now, over the offseason, I’ll take any kind of a mental advantage we can get. It won’t last long.’’
Martin agreed, noting, ”It’ll come right out of their head if (Jimmie’s) not the guy to beat on the race track. It might be right now, but as soon as you get out on the race track and it’s the (No.) 5 car to beat , Jimmie won’t be in their heads. Mark will. That’s my take on it.’’
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin, who many believe can be the driver to dethrone Johnson in 2010, admitted it’s hard to get Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet out of his head, but only because he wants so badly to beat the Hendrick team.
But Hamlin, who drives the No. 18 Toyota, still has to prove he can find the same kind of consistency as Johnson has displayed in his championship runs.
“I feel like I’m as good as he is,’’ Hamlin said earlier this week.”I think I could be better in a lot of different areas, to get equal to him, but I think I’m 90 percent of what Jimmie is right now, and I think just a few little areas here and there, not letting things get in my head too much – not letting stuff frustrate you as much – that’s what could make me better.
“As far as just being a better driver than him, it’s just going to come with experience. He’s been in the sport twice as long as I have. You’ve got to give me a little break on that. If Jimmie’s at his best and I’m at my best, I feel like we’re gonna be toe-to-toe. We’ll race at Homestead for the championship.’’
Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief since he began his Cup career in 2002, loves the fact that other drivers and teams are distracted by his team’s success.
“As long as we can go out there this year and back it up out of the gate, it’s definitely a plus,’’ Knaus said Wednesday. “If you can get other people to be concerned about what you’re doing and not concerned about what they need to be working on, that’s definitely a goal.
“You see that even in the garage as team members and other crew chiefs are more concerned about what other teams are doing instead of what’s directly on their plate. They don’t typically perform as well. So, if they’re talking about us already at this juncture, then good for us.’’
But Knaus insists no team can go into a season worrying about winning the championship.
“You really need to take one thing at a time,’’ he said. “It’s a long season and you have rules changes and other things to deal with, like somebody’s hot streak or some bad luck. You really just take it one race at a time and, when you get toward the summer and middle of the season, you see where you are and put yourself in the best situation to begin the Chase (for the championship). Then you can think about winning a championship.
Johnson too is a realist. He knows that his team will finish out of the money at some point.
“It’s going to happen at some point,’’ Johnson said. “When it does, that’s what it is. I feel our chances (of winning) are as good this year as last, so I don’t see why we couldn’t, based on things we can control.
“If we come up short and we gave 100 percent, I’m going to go home happy. If we leave something on the table, a 100 percent effort’s not put in and we come up short, that’s going to sting. All we can do is our best and, the last four years, our best has done it.’’
If they do continue this unprecedented string of championship, though, it will be because Johnson, Knaus and Rick Hendrick, now a nine-time champion as a team owner, never take anything for granted.
“All of our teams prepare for the season, any season, as if we’re starting from scratch,’’ Hendrick said. “You never know what is going to happen during the season, so you have to have the right people, the best equipment and, hopefully, a little luck.
“And, with the competition we have in this series, we’ll take any advantage we can get.’’
It appears the biggest advantage at this point is named Jimmie Johnson.
It’s good to be king!
– Mike Harris can be reached at email@example.com
Mike Harris was the long-time auto racing beat writer for the Associated Press and is now a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com