NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Side By Side: Where Does Jimmie Johnson Really Rank?

Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both, 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: Is Jimmie Johnson the best NASCAR driver in the 21st century?

Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: Johnson is Just That Good

OK, I admit it. I understand why some fans just can’t stand Jimmie Johnson. His story just seemed to be a bit too perfect and the success, it seemed, came a little too easily. Shouldn’t everyone have to struggle a bit before becoming the best at what they do? Even Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.

But no matter what your stance on Johnson may be: love him, hate him, or somewhere in between, there’s something that cannot be denied. Johnson has been, to this point, the best NASCAR driver of the 21st century. Hands down.

As we head to Texas, this weekend Johnson has won five Sprint Cup titles and has 62 Sprint Cup race wins, easily the most by anyone between 2000 and today. Sure, there have been some challengers to the top spot, like Tony Stewart, who has three Sprint Cup titles in that span. And if you want to talk about the immediate future, Brad Keselowski seems to be up to making a push, while Kyle Busch has had success across all three series, but is lacking a Sprint Cup title. As for the long-term, there’s the Dillon brothers, or possibly even Kyle Larson and maybe a handful of others who could challenge Johnson in due time.

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With numbers that include five Cup titles, 62 wins, and over 14,000 laps led, Jimmie Johnson just might be the best driver we’ve seen so far this century…

But from what we know now, Johnson is without question on the pole when it comes to ranking drivers since 2000. And he gave others a head start, not racing his first full Sprint Cup season until 2002. Johnson, who is now 37, won three races in his rookie season and has won at least two every year since then, including a remarkable run of 10 victories in 2007. He now sits eighth on the all-time victories win list, 14 behind the legendary and late Dale Earnhardt.

And while we’re bringing up the Intimidator, whether the so-called Johnson haters like to admit it or not, there’s at least a couple of things that they have in common. One, of course, is that they both found their success driving Chevrolets. The other is that, at the height of their success, they each had more than their share of haters. When Earnhardt won, or Johnson wins, the celebrations have been marked by their fair share of boos from the crowd. Johnson’s win at Martinsville this week is Exhibit A for that; at least one beer can was fired over the fence as he made his victory lap.

At the start of each NASCAR season, when opponents talk about winning the title, they know Johnson is still the guy to beat, and they’ll be the first to tell you that, too. Also, the fact that Johnson not winning a title the past two years is considered a slump by many just shows how high expectations are.

Though many fans only utter Johnson’s name with vitriol, he earned some respect at a press conference during the season after he had won that fifth straight title. I asked him if he had thought about going for the record of seven titles shared by Earnhardt and the great Richard Petty? Many drivers would have said something to the effect that they were just taking it one race at a time, or one season at a time, and to be on the same level as Earnhardt and Petty is something you can only dream of.

But Johnson’s reply was basically, “Yes, we have thought about it, and we want to go for the record.” He didn’t say it in a way that was cocky or demeaning to current drivers, or to the legendary ones he’d be beating. But he did say it with a confidence that couldn’t be ignored because everyone knows, whether they like to admit it or not, that it’s quite possible for him to reach seven titles, maybe more. While Johnson is no stranger to controversy, it was a bit refreshing to hear him say he and his team were going to go for it — at least he was telling the truth.

Along with the titles and victories, the boos and confidence that come with being the best, there are other parts of being the best that aren’t related to sitting in the car and driving. One of the driver’s jobs in these economic times is to attract and keep big money sponsors. Johnson has had one primary backer his entire Sprint Cup career in Lowe’s. He understands how that part of the game is played because he knows without the big money sponsor, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to be a big-time winner. Johnson first had to face that reality at age 14 when he had to hunt for his own funding, and he’s never forgotten that early lesson.

The five-time champion also takes at least some value in being a team player. It was two years ago, when Kasey Kahne was scheduled to join Hendrick Motorsports but wasn’t on the team yet, that Johnson went out and ran a 5K with his future teammate the day after a Saturday night race. That also shows that Johnson takes his physical conditioning seriously. He understands that being on the top is not easy and he doesn’t take it for granted.

Jimmie Johnson has, without a doubt, made himself into the premier NASCAR driver of this century so far. And if this season tells us anything, the current points leader has no plans to do anything but continue to be the best for the foreseeable future.

Huston Ladner, Senior Writer: Not So Fast…

Jimmie Johnson. Five-time Sprint Cup champion. 62 wins. Statistically, Johnson is one of the best in NASCAR — ever. It’s not difficult to make the case that Johnson is the best driver of this era (whatever one would call this modern era of the COT and Gen-6). In fact, saying that he’s the best is like making the outrageous claim that water is wet.

But is he the best of the 21st century? Nope.

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…but is there just too much racing left to decide?

Say what? The opening paragraph indicated a testament to Johnson’s worthiness for that title. Seems all too easy. And that’s the exact reason he can’t be considered the best driver of this century. The main reason for this fact is simply that 87% of the century still hasn’t happened yet.

Brad Keselowski won the championship last year and it can be argued that he hasn’t even reached his full potential. In a lot of ways, Keselowski brings a similar intellectual, thinking-man’s elan to the track that Johnson does. That’s not to call Keselowski Johnson 2.0, though, as much as it is to claim comparable traits. Does that mean that the 1x champ can equal what Johnson has done? Who knows – this column isn’t about predictions.

Then there’s the confounding Kyle Busch whom pundits laud as having the most talent of any driver on the track – it’s just that his brain gets in the way sometimes. Remember, Johnson didn’t become the driver he is now until he reached his 30s and started laying down championship seasons. Kyle Busch, currently is age 27. Once again, not saying that he’s the man to take the title of century’s best driver and ride home with it, but there’s also a chance that he could.

The real trick to the question is recognizing the talent that is in the pipeline. Even Joey Logano, sitting at a wizened age of 22, finally looks to be rounding into the form of a respectable driver – and he’s already been in Cup for 3 years. Maybe given the time to figure out some things, he’ll turn into more of what was expected of him.

It is difficult to remember that auto racing has existed for only the past 110 years. The Milwaukee Mile opened in 1903 and is largely acknowledged as America’s first oval. Indianapolis Motor Speedway didn’t come about until 1909. Heck, even the Martinsville paperclip began its racing in 1949, and exists as the oldest track on the NASCAR Cup schedule.

What does all that mean?

It means that in 110 years, auto racing has gone through a lot of evolution, but in the grand scheme of history, it’s barely even a baby. So there’s no reason not to anticipate another driver falling into a time and age and becoming the face of that age. Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Jeff Gordon. Jimmie Johnson. In many ways, they are the same story just told anew.

It’d be flat out against historical trends for another driver not to take on the title of driver of the 21st century at some point in the next few decades. Michael Schumacher was roundly considered to be the class of F1 for the latter part of the 20th century. But when he returned, granted, in subpar equipment, it was clear that things had changed, and his skills and talents no longer allowed him to make a mockery of the field. And now there’s Sebastian Vettel.

With new talent now flowing through the Nationwide and Trucks pipeline there is reason to believe that these drivers, now filled with a different sense of knowledge, won’t create new standards for excellence. All it takes is a mix of the right elements.

And looking off into the future of NASCAR, no one knows what those elements might be yet. (Though there probably still won’t be speedometers in the car to gauge pit road speed.)

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