DAYTONA BEACH — Roger Federer looks weary. Tiger Woods looks lost. Lance Armstrong looks nostalgic.
In recent months, the roll call for dominance has seemingly grown short. The usual suspects have gone missing. For the first time in a while, we have been reminded how difficult it can be to stand alone on a hill.
And shouldn't that make us appreciate Jimmie Johnson even more?
In case you hadn't noticed, NASCAR's four-time defending Sprint Cup champion is still on top of his game. He might have a bad race. He might have a slow month. But halfway through another season, are you comfortable calling anyone else the favorite for 2010?
Just when it seemed NASCAR's various tinkers and tweaks had cost the No. 48 car its edge, Johnson won back-to-back races heading into this evening's Coke Zero 400, and now sits on the heels of points leader Kevin Harvick.
The sport had gone 30 years without a three-time defending champion before Johnson matched Cale Yarborough's feat in 2008. A year later, Johnson won an unprecedented fourth consecutive title. And now a fifth looks possible, if not probable.
"When you compare it just to racing, it's really incredible," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "Especially in a time when competition is higher than it's ever been, closer than it's ever been, with more good teams than have ever been.
"And somewhere in there the story has to be told, whether you're talking about the Lakers or the Celtics or the Yankees, how different this is. Because the stick-and-ball sports have basically stayed the same. They don't move the 3-point line, or change the rules for home runs. But we have mechanical issues that come up all of the time, whether it's aerodynamics or rules and regulations, or new crew chiefs and engine builders. I don't think you can express enough how difficult those achievements are in that context."
With every race, with every season, it is getting harder and harder for critics to punch holes in Johnson's legacy. Yes, team owner Rick Hendrick has been at the top of the sport for quite some time. Yes, crew chief Chad Knaus is the best in the business. Yes, NASCAR has changed the points race and Johnson has taken advantage of the Cup playoff system.
But there is no getting around Johnson's dominance. Since his first full season in 2002, Johnson has won 52 Cup races. During those eight-plus seasons, no one else has won even half that many races. Think about that. He has been twice as good as every other driver for close to a decade. That's not good, that's a butt-whipping.
Johnson, 34, has finished in the top five in points for eight consecutive seasons. Jeff Gordon never did that. Neither did Mark Martin. Or Dale Earnhardt. Or Bill Elliott. You have to go back to Darrell Waltrip to find that type of domination.
"Obviously you're going to have to knock off the 48. Those are the guys that have made it happen in the Chase, and been consistent and won races," Harvick said. "Until somebody proves they can do that, those are the guys that you have to beat."
Along the way, everyone has taken their shots. A year ago, Martin finished second in the standings. Before that, it was Carl Edwards. Before that, Gordon. Before that, Matt Kenseth.
This season, Harvick and Denny Hamlin have tried to stand in history's path. Hamlin has as many victories as Johnson, but he has not been as consistent. Harvick has been more consistent, but he does not have as many wins.
Johnson, meanwhile, continues to roll. He began the season on a hot streak, hit a lull, and now has kicked it back in gear. His final lap bump-and-run victory against Kyle Busch in New Hampshire last week even won him points from the old school crowd that has bemoaned Johnson's pristine and corporate image.
"I know a lot of people made it out to be a slump but, at the end of the day, this is professional sports and it's not easy. You are going to fight things from time to time," Johnson said. "It's amazing to me to think, in three weeks time, everyone went from saying slump, slump, slump to dominance. I'm like, "Where were you guys three weeks ago?' "
Honestly, the odds are against another Johnson championship in 2010. Compared against other individuals he is probably the favorite, but compared to the entire field, it is difficult to say he will finish on top. There are simply too many variables.
But the final numbers are just details. The championships are a tool to weigh against history. The true measure of a competitor's dominance is the way his peers view him.
And everyone in NASCAR still sees Johnson from the rear.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.