NASCAR feels the Michael Schumacher effect thanks to Jimmie Johnson

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Jimmie Johnson in action at Bristol Motor Speedway
Jimmie Johnson in action at Bristol Motor Speedway

Domination by one driver was the name of the game in F1 in the first half of the decade. Michael Schumacher and Ferrari swept all before them as he won five consecutive drivers’ championships.

But that sort of thing doesn’t happen in NASCAR, where every race is decided by a slipstreaming battle to the chequered flag and a 20-car pile-up. Does it?

Actually it does – Californian Jimmie Johnson is on the verge of an historic fourth consecutive championship win. But is it causing NASCAR fans to switch off in the way many F1 fans did in the Schumacher years?

Like Schumacher, Johnson has equalled the record for the most consecutive championship wins in his category. Schumacher matched (and later exceeded) Juan Manuel Fangio’s record of four. Last year Johnson reached Cale Yarborough?s previously unmatched three consecutive NASCAR titles.

And like Schumacher, Johnson is now poised to raise the bar even higher. With five races left to run in 2009 he leads the championship with 5,923 points to Mark Martin’s 5,833. (NASCAR’s complicated points system is explained here). Here’s how their seasons of dominance compare so far:

Michael Schumacher

2000: F1 world champion, 9/17 wins
2001: F1 world champion, 9/17 wins
2002: F1 world champion, 11/17 wins
2003: F1 world champion, 6/16 wins
2004: F1 world champion, 13/18 wins

Jimmie Johnson

2006: NASCAR champion, 5/36 wins
2007: NASCAR champion, 10/36 wins
2008: NASCAR champion, 7/36 wins
2009: NASCAR championship leader, 6/31 wins, five races remaining

Yes, Johnson’s race wins hit-rate is nothing like as strong as Schumacher’s – but that says more about the differences between NASCAR and F1. With a huge field of entries, very tight technical regulations, more than twice as many races as F1, and multi-car pile-ups commonplace, NASCAR is harder for one man to dominate.

One-driver domination rarely makes for an entertaining championship. F1 discovered this in the Schumacher years: even at Schumacher and Ferrari’s home races (all four of them) ticket sales began to dip and TV ratings suffered as the red team pole-axed their rivals week in, week out. Now NASCAR has the same problem.

F1’s governing body reacted by trying to make the championship harder to win. In 2003 points were extended down to eighth place and second suddenly became worth eight points instead of six, while a win remained valued at ten. The aim of the change was clear: the FIA did not want the world championship being decided in July again.

Will NASCAR follow suit and try to find some artificial means of putting obstacles in Jimmie Johnson’s way?

And will F1 one day see a repeat of Schumacher-like levels of dominance by another driver-team combination? Who among today’s drivers could do it?

I don’t follow NASCAR much beyond reading the race write-ups in Autosport, so I’d be especially interested to hear what NASCAR-watchers think of Johnson and how his championship streak compares with Schumacher’s.

NB. I’m not getting myself tied up in NASCAR’s sponsor-based title definitions. Suffice to say when I say ‘NASCAR champion’ I mean whatever the premier category was called in that year, be it the Sprint/NEXTEL/Winston/whatever Cup.

NASCAR and F1