Kurt Smith · Friday October 24, 2008
In the wake of a seemingly inevitable third straight title for Jimmie Johnson and crew, John Close at CloseFinishes.com recently compared Johnson to the only other driver in the history of the sport to achieve that feat, the mighty Cale Yarborough. It’s a natural comparison to make, but Close was the first I saw to make it. So I decided to be second.
Close hands the “better” title to Yarborough…“hands down”…based on comparing certain statistics—total wins, Top 5s, Top 10s, laps led, poles won. In that regard, Yarborough’s numbers are better.
But to say that Yarborough scored better finishes and led more laps than Johnson did in their dominant three-year periods, while not an invalid argument, is not entirely a big-picture one. Yarborough raced in an era where multi-car teams did not dominate the NASCAR landscape as they do today. NASCAR was also less popular, paid smaller purses and did not attract the level of competition that it does today.
I’m probably gonna get blasted for that one. Fine, fire away. I probably deserve it.
You often hear talk about the dilution of quality pitching whenever expansion teams are added in baseball. Roger Maris and Mark McGwire both set single-season home run records in expansion years. But as a sport grows the talent level catches up, and the chances of a single athlete dominating become smaller. Baseball will not have a slugger who hits more home runs than most teams as Babe Ruth often did. And no NASCAR driver racing today is likely to reach 200 wins, for a variety of reasons, but partly because of the improved level of competition.
In Yarborough’s championship seasons of 1976-78, NASCAR averaged 7.3 race winners per year. In 2006-08, NASCAR has averaged 13.7 winners per year, and that’s with the possibility of Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth or even David Ragan notching a W before the season is out, which would push that number slightly higher.
Cale Yarborough won 29 races in a three-year period, which is remarkable by any standard. But of the remaining 61 races, David Pearson won 16, Darrell Waltrip won 13, Benny Parsons nine, Richard Petty eight, Bobby Allison five. That’s 80 out of 90 races, or 88.9%, won by just six drivers. Cale Yarborough had tough opponents. But so does Jimmie Johnson. And Johnson has more of them.
Johnson has won 21 races since 2006. His closest competitor there is Kyle Busch with 10. In wins at least, Johnson has more than doubled the total of his closest competitor, which Yarborough didn’t quite do. The other top five drivers in wins besides Johnson have been Busch (10), Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart (nine each), and Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne (eight each). The top six drivers account for 65 wins in 104 races, or 62.5%.
When looking at Top 5s, similar stats can be seen. Of 450 Top 5s in 1976-78, 373—more than 80%—were scored by just nine drivers. More than half of the Top 5s then were scored by just five drivers—Yarborough, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Benny Parsons and David Pearson. In 2006-08, of 520 Top 5s (so far), it took 14 drivers to score 80% (416).
In 1976, six drivers scored 15 or more Top 5s. In 2006, only Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, and Tony Stewart reached 15. In 1977, five drivers had more than 16 Top 5s, and three of them had more than 20. In 2007, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson had more than 20 Top 5s. No one else scored more than 13. In 1978, just five drivers scored more than 14 Top 5s, and only Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip scored more than 15. In 2008, with four races remaining, there are five drivers with at least 11 Top 5s and three more with 10.
And so it similarly goes with Top 10s. You can look it up.
My initial hypothesis was that the sport has many more potential winners and competitive cars on the track every week today than it did in the 1970s. That is true, although the difference isn’t as pronounced as I had initially thought.
In Yarborough’s defense, that there were fewer competitive teams also meant that there were fewer competitive rides available to a driver. For Cale to have gotten into one of those rides, he most certainly had to prove himself as a driver, which he did by plugging away for nearly a dozen teams before eventually Junior Johnson bought out Richard Howard and turned it into a championship team.
It was a little easier for Jimmie Johnson to get into a strong ride. His first Cup ride is his current one. During his Busch career, one that didn’t turn many heads (he finished 10th in the standings and won just one race), he asked one Jeff Gordon for advice. Gordon told Johnson not to accept any deals before speaking with him, and recommended him to Rick Hendrick. Johnson moved into Cup racing with one of the best teams in the business…and as it turned out, one of the best crew chiefs. The rest is well-known history.
But however many women both drivers had to sleep with to get to the top, they both performed splendidly once they were in cars that were among the best available at the time. While it was much harder for Yarborough to get there, no one can argue that Johnson has failed to prove himself worthy of first class equipment. When you teammate is Jeff Gordon and you outperform him fairly often, you’re doing just fine.
Yarborough does have a trump card. When he won three straight titles, he needed to outperform all the other drivers for the entire season, not just outperform 11 for 10 races. Jimmie won by both measures in 2006 and is on track to do so this season, but there is no argument that he would not have been champion in 2007 under the rules Yarborough followed.
It’s a fair argument. But it’s not as though Jimmie didn’t have a title-worthy season in 2007: 10 wins, 20 Top 5s and 24 Top 10s. That is a phenomenal season any way it is dissected. Whatever I may think of the Chase, and I’m on record in about a dozen articles disparaging it, it is Johnson who hoisted the 2007 Cup. Still, if Cale wants to make that case, I won’t argue with him.
But one could also argue that the pressure is greater with a Chase. (I’m not saying I support it. I’m just talking about the pressure here.) What I say here is speculation and not fact, so dispute it if you like: Tony Stewart’s 2005 title notwithstanding, the Chase may give the advantage to a driver who is patient, controls his emotions, and doesn’t incur a costly DNF or lose positions making mistakes. That is Jimmie Johnson in every respect. The Chase may reward luck more than the proper points system did, but what the 48 team has done in the last three Chases has not just been luck. They’ve accepted the rules, no matter how misguided they may be, and learned how to flip on the switch when it matters.
Temperament-wise, the two drivers could not be more different. Yarborough was fire, Johnson is ice. But Yarborough could be patient when needed…as he was until the last lap of the 1979 500. And Johnson can turn on the desire, like in his determination to pass Matt Kenseth for the win at Texas last season, when a second place finish would have been easier, less risky and most likely acceptable. Both qualities can serve a driver well on the track. Compare Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth, another two nearly equally successful drivers with completely opposite temperaments. Or look at how well Carl Edwards, a driver who could almost be classified as bipolar, performs on race day.
In the end, both Johnson and Yarborough stood head and shoulders above the rest of the NASCAR competition for three straight seasons. A case could be made for either driver’s three-year run being a greater accomplishment. A similar case could be made that neither driver would have been as successful in the other’s era, although both probably would have been.
But since I took the ball and pitched this evaluation, I can’t just vote “present”.
I’m going to give the edge to Jimmie Johnson. Johnson dominated and still dominates in an era where domination is more difficult. If you list any of the multiple race winners in a season in Yarborough’s day, many of them won Cups of their own, some multiple times: Petty, Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Pearson, and Parsons. Dave Marcis, Neil Bonnett, and Donnie Allison were the only others to win multiple races in any of those three seasons. The last three seasons have seen multiple season wins from Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kasey Kahne. None of them have won a Cup. For any driver to rule the series for three straight seasons is much more difficult to conceive today, when the talent is more plentiful and the cars are more spec.
No one’s denying Yarborough, but should Johnson win his third straight, it will be a greater achievement.
- I see (from the Frontstretch Newsletter, subscribe here) that Brian Vickers and his crew chief have been hit with the 150-point whammy from NASCAR for using sheet metal that did not meet minimum thickness requirements. Wow. I’ll bet they never told Brian that he was protected by a layer of aluminum foil at Martinsville.
- The Camping World Truck Series eh? Not bad; fits in with the NASCAR devotees that spend whole weekends at racetracks. Not gonna be the same without Craftsman though…
- And once again, Joey Logano will attempt to make the field in the No. 02 car for JGR, this time at Atlanta. If it would ever stop raining during qualifying, we could really see what this kid could do.
- Bill Elliott is closing in on full retirement, and probably not in a Brett Favre kind of way. I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t talked about the man much. But I will just point out that he won the Most Popular Driver poll 16 times, and that ain’t bad for a guy that won as often as he did—guess he wasn’t stinking up the show after all.
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