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Johnson’s curse on NASCAR

Could NASCAR become a victim of Jimmie Johnson’s success?

After the previous four seasons and the first five races of the 2010 season, I think that’s a legitimate question that has to be considered.

Much has been written about the decline in television ratings and fan participation over the last several years and NASCAR’s concerted effort to reverse those trends this season. Certainly, the sad state of the economy can be blamed for the decrease in ticket sales and attendance, but I believe that some of the “fun” has been taken out of the sport due to Johnson’s unbelievable run over the last four years.

In certain races, including the one this week in Martinsville, you almost can see the end before the beginning, Johnson will either win the race or run at the front the whole race.

Is that good for NASCAR? I can’t help but think that some fans have turned away from the sport because of Johnson’s success. And he is quickly being greeting with just as many boos as cheers. In all major sports, teams or individuals that perform at top levels become targets for disdain. In the past, the New York Yankees in baseball, Chicago Bulls in basketball, and the New England Patriots in football have all become the team you loved to hate, due to succeeding.

That is what is happening to Johnson. Hints have been made that somehow Johnson’s Lowes team is not operating within the rules and the result is his unbelievable run. I am not one who believes that, it would be extremely difficult to orchestrate such an effort with all the inspections each team must go through, but those allegations are starting to surface. They’re starting to surface because Johnson’s team is leaps and bounds better than everyone else right now.

Johnson’s talent cannot be questioned, but, to me, the secret behind his success is Chad Knaus, his crew chief. This guy always seems to make the right decisions at the right times. Johnson rarely has mechanical issues and almost never gets caught on the wrong pit stop sequence. Knaus is the currently the best in the garage.

Did you see Forbes magazine estimates of driver compensations published this week? The numbers are astronomical.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads the way with $30 million in earnings in 2009, followed by Jeff Gordon at $27 million, Johnson at $23 million, Tony Stewart at $19 million, and Carl Edwards at $14 million.

The magazine also estimated team values. Hendrick Motorsports has a reported value of $350 million. The remainder of the top five include Roush Fenway racing at $238 million, Richard Childress Racing at $153 million, Joe Gibbs Racing at $144 million, and Richard Petty Motorsports at $124 million.

These numbers are staggering, even with the 6 percent to 10 percent drop from prior the year across the board and the likely drop by the same percentages this year.

The cup drivers invade the half-mile Martinsville Speedway for the 123rd time this Sunday for the Goody’s Fast Relief 500. Johnson has won five of the last seven races here, but didn’t win the last race held at the venerable track. Denny Hamlin won last October and is strong in early practices. My pick to win this week at Martinsville is Jeff Gordon.