NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle: Is Jimmie Johnson’s the Greatest Championship Performance Ever? History Says No

The No. 48 car is on an incredible run over the last four years. They have won the championship three years in a row, and are halfway to doing it for a fourth straight year after a convincing win on Saturday night.

It’s a very impressive run, to be sure, but the question remains: where does it stand in the modern era of NASCAR amongst the other great champs?

The modern era of NASCAR began in 1972, and the first stretch to be examined is the run of Richard Petty from 1973 through 1976. During that four-year stretch, Petty scored 32 victories, 77 tops fives and 86 top 10s in 119 races. Even with those numbers, though, he only won two championships, finishing second the other two years.

During that same time period, from 1976 through 1979, Cale Yarborough went on his run of three consecutive championships. Until Johnson did it over the last three years, Yarborough was the only driver to accomplish the feat. Yarborough was remarkably consistent during his three championship seasons, posting nine wins, 22 top fives and 23 top 10s in ’76, nine wins, 25 top fives and 27 top 10s in ’77 and 10 wins, 23 top fives and 24 top 10s in ’78. Add to those numbers his fourth-place season in ’79 and his totals for his best four years were 32 victories, 89 top fives and 96 top 10s in 121 races.

Shortly after Yarborough’s run, Darrell Waltrip came into his own for his big streak. From 1981 through 1984, Waltrip logged 37 victories, 73 top fives and 90 top 10s in 121. Even with those totals, however, he was only able to win the championship in ’81 and ’82. He was runner-up to Bobby Allison in 1983 and a distant fifth in 1984. On Waltrip’s heels we find Dale Earnhardt who, while his run was not in four consecutive years, still put up some impressive numbers. In 1987, 1990, 1991 and 1993, Earnhardt won the title and compiled 30 victories, 70 top fives and 87 top 10s while competing in 117 races. Earnhardt’s numbers are less impressive than the others in the list because he had very subpar years in ’88, ’89 and ’92, however.

The last driver we can look at for comparison purposes to Johnson is Jeff Gordon. Gordon went on a tear from 1995 through 1998, scoring three championships and a second-place points finish. Gordon’s impressive statistics were compiled in 127 races, the most of anyone on the list. He notched 40 victories, 86 top fives and 98 top 10s during that time span to wind up tops on this list.

That leads us to Jimmie Johnson. From 2006 through the Charlotte Chase race, he’s competed in 139 races. During that timeframe, he’s accumulated 27 victories, 60 top fives and 89 top 10s. With five races to go, those numbers are almost certain to go up. Nonetheless, they are certainly on par with the great championship runs of the last 38 years – although they’re close.

Gordon compiled the most victories in a four-year span with 40, ahead of Waltrip who landed 37 victories over his best four years. Yarborough had the most top fives by far with 89, clearly outdistancing Gordon’s 86 in six fewer races. For top 10s, Gordon is back on top with his 98, two ahead of Yarborough’s 96.

So while Johnson’s numbers are indeed impressive, and many people today are considering him to be so dominant he’s actually making the racing boring, it’s by no means the most dominant championship run in the modern era. In fact, it’s none other than Johnson’s mentor, Gordon, whose four-year stretch is the class of this field, with the most victories, top 10s and second-most top fives.

In reality, Johnson’s run at this point in time is the least dominant of the six champions who have won three titles in the modern era. Mind you, competition is at its highest level ever, and there are more cars finishing on the lead lap then ever before, but Johnson has had more races to compile his statistics and they are still less than the other champions.

Yet knowing Chad Knaus, he’ll probably take this information and come back with an even greater vengeance when he goes for five in a row next year.

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