Since the 2006 has come to an end, it’s time to write it in the history books. The way this season will be written will pleasure some, disappoint others, and make even more downright mad. But however you slice it, it’s time for a look back in this column over the next couple of weeks. This week, in Part Two of this season’s look, and in light of a debate I’ve seen in a couple of other venues, I decided to compare Jimmie Johnson‘s stellar 2006 championship campaign with some of the greatest championship seasons of all-time to see where it stacks up.
I don’t like to compare eras in any sport – there are far too many variables to take into consideration. In fact, for this one I made a cutoff to make things a little more fair: NASCAR’s modern era, which began in 1972. I then ranked the top-10 championship efforts over the past 34 years based on the following criteria: wins, top-five finishes, top-10 finishes and wins in the most prestigious races during the season, including the All-Star Race. I did take note of one major shift in the last category: until recently, the two most prestigious races that every driver and team wanted to win were the Daytona 500 and the Southern 500. In 1994, NASCAR at last turned laps at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and as the sport has begun to pull away from its Southern roots, the Allstate 400 has replaced the now-defunct Southern 500 as the second most sought-after trophy in NASCAR. The changeover probably occurred sometime around 2000; however, I took into consideration both races in the years they overlapped. Also, the All-Star Race was not run prior to the 1985 season, so I didn’t hold it against drivers of the 1970s and early 1980s that they didn’t have any experience with a race that simply didn’t exist.
Of course, every year of NASCAR’s modern era has produced a worthy champion who earned his way to the title; however, some titlist’s seasons have truly been better than others. Here are my picks for the best of the best since 1972:
1. Jeff Gordon, 1997. Even though Gordon had more wins in his 1998 campaign, he became the first driver in history to take home the trifecta of the Daytona 500, All-Star Race, and the Southern 500 in a single year, allowing him to waltz to the title over Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin. Taking home the Coca-Cola 600 trophy that year, as well, Gordon became just the second winner of the long-coveted Winston Million and first since Bill Elliott in 1985; the bonus was given out to any driver capable of winning three of the sport’s four biggest races (Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, Darlington).
The Stats: 10 wins, 22 top-five finishes, 23 top-10 finishes in 32 starts. Won the Daytona 500, the All-Star Race, and the Southern 500.
2. Gordon, 1998. As NASCAR strove to make cars more equal than ever, Gordon set himself apart from the competition, tying the modern-era record for single-season victories with 13. Oh, and he won the Brickyard 400 and the Southern 500, too, making him the first of only two drivers to win both AND win the title in the same year.
The Stats: 13 wins, 26 top-five finishes, 28 top-10 finishes in 33 starts. Won the Brickyard 400 and the Southern 500.
3. Richard Petty, 1975. Only the slightly closer competition of the late 1990s keeps this season from the top of the list. In terms of victories, this was Petty’s best season in the modern era.
The Stats: 13 wins, 21 top-five finishes, 24-top 10 finishes in 30 starts.
4. Dale Earnhardt, 1987. Earnhardt’s third championship year was also arguably the best of his seven. He had more wins than in any of his other Cup-winning years, along with his second-best top-10 total to back that up.
The Stats: 11 wins, 21 top-five finishes, 24 top-10 finishes in 29 starts. Won the All-Star Race and the Southern 500.
5. (Tie) Darrell Waltrip, 1981, 1982. Although many new fans are more familiar with Waltrip’s television image than his on-track prowess, Waltrip put together what are possibly the best back-to-back seasons in the modern era. Although he didn’t take home the top hardware in the form of Daytona 500 trophies, the wins alone put Waltrip in an elite class indeed.
1981: 12 wins, 21 top-five finishes, 25 top-10 finishes in 31 starts.
1982: 12 wins, 17 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes in 30 starts.
6. (Tie) Earnhardt, 1990; Gordon, 1995. These two seasons almost cannot be statistically separated. Earnhardt had two more wins in his first title season; he also had one more top-five finish in ’90. But both drivers won the Southern 500 and the All-Star event in their respective championship runs. It’s no wonder these two were intense rivals – their statistics remain similar over their entire careers to date.
Earnhardt, 1990: Nine wins, 18 top-five finishes, 23-top 10 finishes in 29 starts. Won the Southern 500 and the All-Star Race.
Gordon, 1995: Seven wins, 17 top-five finishes, 23-top 10 finishes in 31 starts. Won the Southern 500 and the All-Star Race.
7. Cale Yarborough, 1978. Yarborough was the driver who helped gain NASCAR national attention when he got into a fistfight with Bobby and Donnie Allison on national television in 1979, but his on-track statistics are what should be his biggest legacy. This was the third consecutive championship for the legendary driver of Junior Johnson’s Chevrolet.
The Stats: 10 wins, 23 top-five finishes, 24 top-10 finishes in 30 starts. Won the Southern 500.
8. (Tie) Petty, 1972, 1974. In NASCAR’s transition year of 1972, Petty showed remarkable consistency. While he didn’t match his win totals from 1974 or 1975, his remarkable 25 top-five finishes made his a season to remember. Petty’s top-five total dropped to 22 in 1974, but his ten wins still assured him a place near the top.
1972: Eight wins, 26 top-five finishes in 31 starts.
1974: 10 wins, 22 top-five finishes in 30 starts. Won the Daytona 500.
9. Johnson, 2006. Although Johnson’s five wins are about average for a recent champion, he won the big races, completing the second trifecta in modern NASCAR history with his Daytona 500, All-Star event, and Allstate 400 victories. Still, it might be his late-season comeback that really shows Johnson’s stuff – with just four races left to score points, Johnson was eighth in the standings, well over 100 off the pace. In a season that saw Johnson come from behind again and again, five straight top-two finishes in the last six races turned the season around for the 31-year-old from El Cajon, Calif…. just in the nick of time.
The Stats: Five wins, 13 top-five finishes, 24 top-10 finishes in 36 starts. Won the Daytona 500, the All-Star Race, and the Allstate 400.
10. Elliott, 1988. “Awesome Bill” shone in the late 1980s, setting the restrictor-plate tracks on fire while proving he could win anywhere. In his only title year, Elliott was a threat to win at every track, finally putting a stamp on his consistent success throughout the decade.
The Stats: Six wins, 15 top-five finishes, 22 top-10 finishes in 29 starts. Won the Southern 500.
There you have it; the “best of the best” championship years, with Johnson’s spectacular 2006 season rightfully taking its place among those ranks. What will 2007 bring? Time will tell. In the meantime, look back on your favorite seasons during this offseason of downtime, for these incredible years, after all… are history.