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.
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.
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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