There have been a lot of incredible things in NASCAR’s nearly 70-year history: close finishes, wild crashes, big tracks, small tracks (and a round one), pretty cars, ugly cars, pretty drivers, not-so-pretty drivers. There have been hundreds of drivers running in hundreds of races over the years. Most have their moments, though not every race and certainly not every driver will be remembered for decades as among the best of all time.
Certainly the sport has been graced by some great drivers over the years, some of whom who set marks that will likely never be touched by their modern brethren. While it’s true that the sport has changed over the years, and drivers had more opportunity to win races and titles in an era when it was possible to cherry-pick races at tracks where there was less competition, it’s been hard to deny that there were some drivers both then and since who have been exceptional.
Few drivers have even flirted with the 100-win mark that only two drivers have ever crossed. Fewer still have come within shouting distance of the seven championships owned by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. It’s not for lack of trying; Jeff Gordon came within a handful of races from the 100-win threshold. Gordon was so dominant in the late 1990s that it seemed impossible to believe that he wouldn’t someday eclipse both that mark and the championship record as well. And oh, did some fans resent him for it.
And then along came Jimmie Johnson, who, with six titles, comes so close to the title record that he can almost taste the champagne. He’s not close enough yet to the 100-win mark to be considered a real threat, but check back on that in a couple of years; Johnson still wins races with enough regularity that it’s not yet out of reach.
Dynasties. There have been a few big ones in the sport — Petty, Pearson, Earnhardt, Gordon, Johnson. There have been several shorter-lived ones that have shone brightly, like Allison, Yarborough, Waltrip, Stewart.
And with the talent in today’s field, there are a couple of drivers poised to begin their own chapter in that book — drivers like Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. Both have had multiple-win seasons, and Busch is the defending series champ. Both are young enough that it’s absolutely possible that they could both win multiple titles and put up Hall of Fame numbers in the win column.
But can they begin the kind of dynasty that’s the stuff of legend in an era where the sport is stacked against them? And even if they can be both lucky enough and good enough to win title after title, will they ever be regarded in the same way as the ones who came before?
It’s going to be an uphill battle, and that leads to one more question: is it good for the sport to keep dynasties from getting a foothold or not?
Even if one of today’s drivers wins seven titles, will they forever be branded as inferior to those who won seven full-season titles? Truth is, they already are. Just ask Johnson, whose six titles were all won under the 10-race Chase format. While he’ll never touch Petty’s win total (and neither will anyone else), his next win will tie Earnhardt’s total. He’s got an outside chance at catching Gordon for third on the all-time wins list. And a win is a win is a win.
Johnson won all six of his titles under the same rules as everyone he competed against for them. In that context, it’s hard to argue his dominance. But the trouble is that he didn’t win them under the same rules that Petty and Earnhardt did. He didn’t win the under the system where Gordon won four and others won three. And maybe that’s not fair to Johnson, who didn’t create the system and is driver enough to have multiple titles under any system. But it’s hard to look at them as the same. Johnson had the luxury of a points reset that the others did not, and 10-race stretches at tracks that were good ones for him and his team. Their performance in those title years was stellar, but the team didn’t have to be great all season, even if they sometimes were.
With the current Chase, it’s even harder to say that the number of titles a driver amasses will matter. It’s too easy for a great team to lose in this format and too easy for a good, but not great, one to win. And it’s hard to say that the number of titles matters when they’re simultaneously easier and harder to come by. When a driver can win 10 races and never fail to finish and fall out in the first round when they do get a DNF for something not related to performance, and when a driver who never sniffed the top 10 all season can suddenly squeeze through and win a title, it turns the system on its ear.
But that’s to say there even can be a dynasty under this system. Anything’s possible, but the system is designed to prevent greatness in terms of titles. People have the propensity for complaint if one team wins “too much” in any sport — as long as it isn’t their favorite team. And those were the complaints NASCAR heard. Unable to stop them from winning races and putting up the numbers there, the sanctioning body stacked the odds against repeat and multiple championships in the only way it could think of.
So, it’s entirely possible that the days of a slice of the sport’s history being defined by a single driver are over. If the Dale Earnhardt Era transformed into the Jeff Gordon Era and that era fell with the rise of the Jimmie Johnson Era, what’s next?
A sport can be defined by a period of time by one team or one athlete, and that’s OK. It’s good for the sport to have performances that tower over all others. But NASCAR has fought that — several drivers have multiple wins in the 2010s but there’s only been one repeat champion, and it’s hard to say any driver has defined the last five or six years the way someone always seemed to in the past.
While it’s possible that 10 years from now, fans will be talking about the last years of the Kyle Busch Era or the Joey Logano Era, it’s also possible that there won’t be anyone who defines the sport as drivers come and go from the championship picture, and the ones who look poised to break out fall short.
The time of championship dynasties in NASCAR may well be over, and if it is, does that mean that the sport will be known as wide-open and exciting? Or will it simply be defined by a series of one-hit-wonders who might have been capable and deserving of so much more?
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