Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Jimmie wins again and other news nuggets

Nothing like an off week to mess with the blogging clock, but it's time to get back into the groove.

Not only did we return to the racing grind after a rainy weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, but we had breaking news flying all over the place that will have big impacts on NASCAR for a long time to come.

The opening of this post is easy and a bit ho-hum. After all was said and done and the rain finally decided to stay away, Jimmie Johnson was his winning self again Monday at Bristol. He rolled to the win at the Food City 500, his second in a row and 82nd of his amazing career.

The scoring system doesn't matter. The racing surface doesn't matter. Mother Nature's cruel twists don't matter, either. Johnson just keeps on going.

After rain washed out qualifying, Johnson had to start 11th, a place where race winners at Bristol don't usually come from.

Again, it didn't matter.

Kyle Larson led the first 202 laps. Johnson didn't lead for the first time until lap 394. The 48 only fell out of the lead off pit road twice the rest of the way, but Johnson overtook Kevin Harvick with 21 laps to go and pulled away from a battle for second place between Clint Bowyer and Harvick that Bowyer eventually won.

But in the bigger picture, the only thing that may stop Johnson's assault on the record books is Johnson's health, both mental and physical. Over the last five years (2012 through 2016), the 41-year-old is consistent in his checkered flags won -- five, six, four, five and five.

At the rate he's going, we may be talking about Johnson joining Richard Petty and David Pearson in the 100-win club by 2020. In his 16 full-time seasons in NASCAR's top series, the El Cajon, California native has never had less than two wins a year.

And he only did that once, in 2011.

I've seen several social media postings from a lot of fans who can't stand what Johnson's done in his career. But the bottom line is when he hangs up the helmet, he'll be clearly penciled in among the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time.

Before we could really digest Johnson's win, the bigger bombshell came Tuesday when Dale Earnhardt Jr., the man who's only been voted NASCAR's Most Popular Driver 14 years running, shocked us all by announcing his retirement Tuesday.

It was a jaw-dropping moment for most of the fan base, but the whole sport will be impacted by his move.

Considering how it all came together, it's not surprising.

For those who may have been hiding in a cave, Earnhardt had to sit out the second half of the 2016 season to heal from a concussion. It stunk for all of us, but he did his time and returned to full health in time for the start of this season.

While there haven't been any additional effects from the concussion, Junior Nation hasn't had a whole lot to cheer about through the first eight races.

After finishing fifth at Texas two weeks ago -- the best run for the 88 so far -- an early crash took Earnhardt out at Bristol and he finished 38th. He's 24th in points, averaging a 24th-place finish, and has led eight laps, all at the Daytona 500.

That's gotta give pause to any driver, no matter how healthy he is. If you're not competitive, it's time for a reassessment of everything.

Junior will be 43 in October. He just got married. He has his health back, and I'm sure he wants to keep it and go out on his own terms.

That's certainly not a bad thing. It's awful for the fans, but the sport will survive.

We've had several retirements from big names over the last three seasons. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and now Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The total excellence on the resumes is stellar. Gordon had 93 wins with four championships, Stewart had 49 with three titles, Edwards won 28 times and Junior has 26 to date.

That's 196 victories and seven titles to leave the sport. They can't stay forever.

When legends like Cale Yarborough, Donnie Allison and Richard Petty stepped out of their cars, the world didn't collapse. We still had our races, and the popularity went south for a time before a new crop of drivers came in and went to work.

We're in a similar cycle right now, like it or not. In a sport where it's not normally an option, time and patience will be of the essence so the next crop of stars can leave their mark on the hearts and souls of the most passionate fans in all of sports.

Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email

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