The Frontstretch: Side By Side: Is Jimmie Johnson the Greatest Ever? by Amy Henderson and Jeff Wolfe -- Tuesday November 19, 2013

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Side By Side: Is Jimmie Johnson the Greatest Ever?

Amy Henderson and Jeff Wolfe · Tuesday November 19, 2013


Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both to you, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll, and also in the comments section below!

This Week’s Question: Will Jimmie Johnson be remembered as the best ever in Cup racing when his career is over?

Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: Johnson Stands Alone

We might know now where Jimmie Johnson ranks among the all-time greats of NASCAR. The absolute worst place you can put him, even if he never races again, would be third. He’s got six titles and now is just one behind all-time greats Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.

Even if you’re a Johnson hater and don’t want to admit he belongs in the greatest of all-time argument, he’s going to force his way into it and probably be winning it, too, before he’s done. Johnson is just 38, a driver for the top team in the sport and he’s got a crew chief who, at his very worst, doesn’t mess things up.

Those are all reasons to think Johnson can win at least two more titles. But here’s the real reason why: He’s not satisfied. At an interview in Philadelphia a couple of years ago, when I asked him if he thought about going for eight titles, since he already had five. I expected a typical “we’ll take it one year at a time” type of response, from a guy that many perceive as being a bit too “vanilla.” But Johnson answered in a confident, but not cocky way, that sure, he and his team have thought about it and is something they want to pursue.

Will Johnson one day be considered the best the sport has ever seen…

That was pretty much the answer to a lot of questions there. Since he’s got the physical talent and the financial and equipment backing, it’s just a matter of how bad he wants it…and he does want it.

Sure, it’s difficult to compare drivers from different eras and Petty, Earnhardt and , Johnson each represent different eras in the sport. When Petty raced in the first half of his career, essentially, NASCAR was not regulated as closely and before 1972 raced on all different types of tracks, dirt and asphalt, with different –sized fields, ranging from 50 cars some weeks to 15 in other weeks. But that doesn’t subtract from his greatness of winning seven titles and 200 races, a mark that will never be approached in one series. Petty had a stretch between 1967 and 71 where he won 92 of the 248 races run in those years. And to be fair, Petty also had a stretch where he won 37 of 117 races at the beginning of NASCAR’s modern era between 1972-75. That’s King stuff for sure.

Earnhardt’s best five-year stretch came a little later in his career, between ages 35-39, when he won 33 of 145 races, including 11 of 29 in 1987.

Johnson’s best five-year stretch to this point came when he won his first five titles, between ages 30-34, from 2006-2010 when he won 35 of the 180 races on the schedule.

One way to compare Johnson to Earnhardt and Petty is to look at where they were at this stage in their career. So far, Johnson has 66 career victories, leaving him 10 behind Earnhardt. And Johnson has also done something that neither Petty nor Earnhardt did by winning five straight titles. His team is clearly the team to beat every year.

But here’s the thing about Johnson, he’s not done – probably not even close.

He keeps in excellent physical condition and there is no indication that the aging process is going to catch up to him anytime soon. It’s rare that a driver wins a title after hitting age 40, but there’s no reason to think that if Tony Stewart can do it, Johnson can do it, too, and maybe multiple times.

Johnson and his team also enter each season expecting to win the crown. It’s not an “if things work out, maybe we’ll compete for it” type of situation. It’s this high standard that has been met six times and one you know they believe they can meet again.

When it’s all said and done for the driver of the No. 48, he won’t only be the greatest driver of his era, but the greatest NASCAR driver of all-time.

Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: One of the Greatest? Absolutely. The Greatest? There’s No Comparison.

There’s no arguing the fact that Jimmie Johnson is one of the best NASCAR has ever seen behind the wheel of a stock car. Only two men, legends both, have more than Johnson’s six championships at the sport’s highest level, and Johnson took three years less time to reach his sixth. He’s eighth on the all-time wins list with 66 after just 12 seasons. When Johnson’s career does come to an end, will he be written in the collective minds of those who saw him race as the greatest ever?

He shouldn’t be.

That’s not because of Johnson’s accomplishments, which aren’t even all complete yet. While he’s not going to top Richard Petty’s 200 wins (David Pearson’s 105 would be a stretch), he could well eclipse the rest. He’s already a certain first ballot Hall of Famer.

The simple truth is, it’s impossible to make a comparison among the greatest the sport has seen because the sport itself isn’t the same. The season schedules, the points system, and the technology have changed drastically over the years, and because of that, comparisons of drivers from the beginning of the sport until today are just not valid.

…or will he be one name among the sport’s legends?

Even if you narrow the comparison to the three drivers with the most titles—Petty, Dale Earnhardt, and Johnson—there are not enough valid points to put up next to each other. There’s a time span of more than 50 years between the beginning of Petty’s career and Johnson’s latest title. In that time, the way points are awarded has changed. The way the champion is determined has changed with the Chase. The race car itself has undergone several drastic transformations.

Many of Petty’s 200 wins came in an era where the season schedule was much longer, and teams had the luxury of missing a race or two and still contending for the title, so they could skip a track they didn’t do well at, or show up at a race they knew their stiffest competition was sitting out. Simply running more races than the competition was part of winning a title. There were fewer teams capable of winning every week. NASCAR’s inspection process was much more relaxed than it is today, making it easier to creatively engineer speed (and Petty Enterprises, in its heyday, put today’s teams to shame in the “creative engineering” category). Does any of that diminish Petty’s accomplishments? Not at all; he was simply playing the game as it was played at the time, and playing it better than anyone else.

The game had changed by the time Earnhardt was in his heyday. The modern era schedule was much shorter than it was before 1972 and largely shorter than it is today. That meant there were fewer opportunities to win races and one bad race was a bigger part of the whole season than it was before. Titles could be won on consistency. All the serious competitors ran every race, and while competition has tightened up, there were fewer cars in realistic contention for the win week in and week out as there are now. Like Petty, though, Earnhardt won his titles under the rules he was given. He was racing against racers who were all playing by the same rules, and like Petty, he was beating them.

Earnhardt didn’t live to see the Chase change the game into the one Johnson has mastered. Petty sees it as an owner, but hasn’t driven the last two generations of Cup car. It’s not a format that can be compared to anything before it, and it’s really incorrect to say the season results would or would not have been different with or without it, because teams in serious contention use a different strategy for the Chase than they would running a season-long format. It can be said that Johnson would have had fewer titles without benefit of the Chase; it can also be said that Earnhardt would have had fewer with it if the points are simply retallied to fit the other system. Neither of those statements is truly correct because the teams simply would have adapted differently. As long as all 43 teams are running under the same rules at the same time, the game is open for anyone to take, if they can.

If Johnson has the benefit of the Chase (which I’ve already said merely changed how teams approach the season), he has the disadvantage of running in quite possibly the most competitive era the sport has ever seen, where sometimes 12 to 15 teams are legitimate contenders for race wins every week, more than at almost any point in the past.

There are just too many variables to use the numbers as the only way to choose a “greatest” driver ever. And the only other way—watching them race—is equally impractical as it’s far too subjective. Observers all have their opinions about what makes a driver talented, so while one might cite Earnhardt’s aggression on track, another would use Petty’s consistency or Johnson’s smoothness.

While Jimmie Johnson will deservedly go down as one of the best ever to sit behind the wheel of a stock car, the sport has changed too much to call him the greatest. The sport has seen many good drivers, a few great ones, and even fewer truly exceptional wheelmen. Johnson is one of them, and so are Earnhardt and Petty…but none of them raced head-to-head in the prime of their careers, and there’s just no way to say who stands alone, because numbers don’t tell the whole story.

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©2000 - 2008 Amy Henderson and Jeff Wolfe and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Carl D.
11/20/2013 11:19 AM

I might consider Johnson the best when he wins a championship without Chad Knaus. When you have the best car week in and week out, it’s easy to look good.

Tommy T.
11/20/2013 11:32 AM

It is fun to argue but in truth there is no way to win the argument. Petty, Pearson, Earnhardt, Johnson and Gordon are all amongst the greatest. I’m guessing Jimmie is satisfied with that.

Michael in SoCal
11/20/2013 12:03 PM

If based on wins & championships, I’d say the ‘greatest’ includes Petty, Earnhardt & Johnson (all over 5 wins, over 65 wins [and we know Jimmie will win more races]).

The next level of ‘great’ drivers would include Pearson, Gordon, Waltrip, Yarborough, Stewart & Lee Petty (at least 50 wins [I’m guessing Tony will get there in a year or two] and at least 3 championships).

The third tier would include drivers with close to 50 wins or more plus a championship or two; I’d include Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace, Ned Jarrett, Herb Thomas, Bucky Baker, and Junior Johnson.

I’d move Jeff Gordon up to the first tier if he won that fifth championship.

Tim S.
11/20/2013 01:31 PM

Preach on, Reverend Carl D. When he does something outside of the Hendrick/Knaus cocoon, then we’ll talk. Ten-plus years of having the best of everything (from the shop to the control tower) doth not the greatest make.

11/20/2013 02:14 PM

All Johnson has to do is get in another car for somebody else and win. Put someone else in the 48 with Knaus and see how he (or she) does. All the other great drivers (except Petty)won for multiple owners. Until Johnson does he’s just a good driver in a “legal” car.

A good driver in a good car will win races. A good driver in a bad car will do better than the car deserves. A bad driver in a good car is still a bad driver.

Right now Brian designed a system to favour Johnson and Hendrick.

11/20/2013 03:13 PM

I’d like to know how he’d do if every race meant the same, pointwise. Right now, he’s the master of a 10-race chase. How would he do in a 36-race chase? I’d like to see it.

11/20/2013 03:25 PM


11/20/2013 04:28 PM

Jimmie’s not the best ever. I’d say he’s third behind Dale Earnhardt and Richardt Petty. Another thing to consider is how Petty and Earnhardt helped increase NASCAR’s popularity, while it waned while Johnson is winning.

11/20/2013 05:38 PM

I still say, get rid of the stupid chase, and go back to a decent point system. Whoever devised the old system, knew what he was doing.

11/20/2013 05:45 PM

Amy…you said without the chase, they would of raced differently. Do you mean like 100% every race, and not just points racing? I still think Johnson would of really only won four championships so far.

Richard Petersen
11/20/2013 06:28 PM

To me, the two best in my mind to ever step foot in a race car are Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, it doesn’t matter what Jimmie Johnson does either. Back when Richard Petter and Dale Earnhardt ruled the sport of NASCAR, they had to actually work really really hard, which is why they have that span of titles (16th for Dale Earnhardt & 19th for Richard Petty). Back then, they didn’t have all this fancy stuff you have now. They didn’t have high tech equipment or power steering even when Petty was driving. You compare that to today’s era of NASCAR, drivers have it a LOT more easier. They have the technology and equipment and power steering and so have you, that for a guy to click on like Jimmie Johnson, it’s easy for a guy like him to just run away with it all. And on top of all of that, you bring this Chase thing into it all and it don’t help not one bit. To me in my heart, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty were the best drivers in NASCAR, giving they set the record books and they truly worked hard for it all, regardless of what Mr. Showoff does. Least we know who Hendrick favors the most.

11/20/2013 06:46 PM

I think it could be argued that Johnson/Knaus are the best driver/crew chief combination ever, but it has yet to be seen if Johnson can go it alone. I believe the time will come when Knaus is tired of the long work hours and quits the crew chief game. Only then will we know if Johnson is really as good as the numbers suggest now.

11/20/2013 07:22 PM

I don’t think Knaus will get tired. I think what could happen is after 8 championships are won ,which will probably happen in the next 3 years, Knaus will be offered a new challenge. By then Gordon will be ready to retire and Chase Elliott will be ready to take over the seat of the 24. Knaus will take the crew chief job on the 24, build a team and groom that kid into a winner. If that all happens then we will see if Johnson is as good under a different crew chief. Remember what was said about Gordon and Evernham in their times together. Split them up and Gordon doesn’t win as much. Yep, one more championship after Evernham was gone and that was it for Gordon.

* * * * * *
11/21/2013 12:30 AM

Yes, Johnson is the best professional wrasser ever in the new “World Wide Wrassing” (WWW)series created by Brian France in 2003. He’s the Hulk Hogan of Wrassing.

11/22/2013 02:54 PM

He’s won six “Chase” Championships. Chad(practice during the year and race for the Chase) figured out early that the Chase tracks were the only ones that mattered for the Championship. You have to respect that level of forethought. If the Chase is so important, let’s change the tracks every year and see if the drivers and crew chiefs can adapt. If so, then crown them the Champ!


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.