Will you be able to say you saw history?

November, 21, 2009

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Many years from now, lots of people will say, "I was there."

The crowd of 75,000 for the Ford 400 on Sunday will grow to about 750,000 in 2020. It's human nature, just a little white lie. It always happens on the rare occasions of a historic sports moment.

People want to say they were a part of it: "I saw Jimmie Johnson win his fourth consecutive Sprint Cup title."

Or the other memorable possibility: "I saw Mark Martin shock everyone and finally win a Cup title at age 50."

Some can say it legitimately. But the ones who actually become a part of it are the other drivers on the Homestead-Miami Speedway track.

They all know Sunday is a special day for NASCAR. Win or lose, all of them will look back fondly as competitors on an afternoon of remarkable achievement.

"I don't think Jimmie is getting the credit he's due," Brian Vickers said Friday. "Whether he wins this championship or loses it, we're going to look back 20 or 30 years from now and say, 'They were incredible.'''

Marcos Ambrose will start the race right behind Johnson, who won the pole Friday.

"I don't want to be the guy that ruins his chance," Ambrose said. "I'll be following him into Turn 1 with a safe distance behind him -- kind of like the Interstate rule."

No driver wants to be the guy who people remember as the one who kept Johnson from his destiny, except Martin, of course.

"It's not that we won't race him," Ambrose said. "If I can pass him, I'm going to pass him. But you just have to treat him with respect."

At this point, respect is universal among Johnson's competitors.

"Those guys are just in a groove that we haven't seen since the late '70s," Kurt Busch said Friday. "It's pretty wild. They're tough competitors. They're strong. All you can hope to do each week is to put yourself in position to win, and when you're able to come out on top and beat those guys, you had a good day."

No one has more respect for Johnson's accomplishment than teammate Jeff Gordon, who recognized Johnson's talent eight years ago and helped convince Rick Hendrick to hire him.

"I saw something in Jimmie that I thought could be special," Gordon said Friday. "I had no idea he was going to take off and do what he's done. But I sure am happy now because I look pretty good saying, 'Oh, yeah, absolutely, he's going to do all that.'''

Gordon, who is listed as the owner of Johnson's No. 48 Chevy, remembers sitting in a meeting with Hendrick and Lowe's officials, who wanted to know if Johnson was the right guy.

"I'll never forget it," Gordon said. "Having [Lowe's] CEO Bob Tillman flat-out look at me straight in the face and say, 'Do you really believe that Jimmie can win races and win championships?'

"I told him I believed with Hendrick equipment and the right people around him that, yes, he was capable of it. Now, how much of that did I believe was going to come true? I wasn't sure. I knew that Jimmie had great talent, but I had no idea."

How could he? No one did.

Yes, Johnson has every advantage -- a great organization, the best equipment and a brilliant young crew chief in Chad Knaus.

"If you aren't a good driver, you aren't going to make that package work,'' Tony Stewart said Saturday. "Jimmie does a great job behind the wheel. He has an extremely high amount of talent. He knows what he wants out of his race cars. He knows the feel that he wants."

What Johnson wants now is to complete his date with history.

"Jimmie is just as hungry for the fourth [title] as he was for the first,'' Hendrick said Friday. "I think if you can be any more committed, he is. Chad is the same way. I never worry about having to motivate these guys. They're plenty motivated."

Motivation and dedication, coupled with talent and top equipment. All those things have brought Johnson to this moment -- a chance to do something most people thought couldn't be done.

Vickers said he believes that level of success should be praised and revered.

"But I don't know what it is about our sport," Vickers said. "You go watch Tiger Woods play golf or you watch the Yankees win another World Series and it's celebrated. For some reason, when that happens in our sport, everyone asks, 'What's wrong?'

"Nothing's wrong. I think we should just step back and say, 'This is great for our sport.' Jimmie is about to win four in a row. There's nothing wrong with that. They're just good."

And years from now, people will say, "I was there," even if they weren't.

Terry Blount

ESPN Staff Writer



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