Is it history in the making?
The thing about history is that it’s typically only clear in retrospect. Quite often history is one of those objects in the rear-view mirror that looms larger than it first appeared.
If Jimmie Johnson claims a seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title in two weeks, he will join just two other drivers in the sport’s history to do so: Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. While there was some overlap between the King and the Intimidator (Petty claimed his last title in 1979, the same year Earnhardt won Rookie of the Year honors), Johnson and Earnhardt never ran in the same Cup race. I’d consider Petty as the sport’s biggest star of the 1960s and ’70s, Earnhardt the biggest name of the ’80s and ’90s, and Johnson probably the most visible star of this millennium. There were other successful and impressive drivers in all three eras, but there’s no arguing this trio has served as the faces of the sport in their respective eras.
Since they competed at different times, there’s been some debate as to whether Johnson’s achievements (even absent a seventh championship to date) are comparable to Earnhardt’s and Petty’s. I’m one of the dwindling numbers of NASCAR writers who not only watched all three drivers compete but also have attended races in person when they won. As such, I’ll offer some of my own opinions, words with which you are free to agree or disagree.
As always, your mileage may vary.
I don’t think anyone is trying to downplay or denigrate what Johnson has accomplished in his career. By one measure, Johnson has enjoyed more success than even Earnhardt. He’s won 79 of 541 races he’s run to date, or 14.62 percent of those races. Earnhardt scored 76 Cup victories in 676 starts, or 11.84 percent of the events he ran. But Petty trumps them both, with a 16.89 percent score.
In the prime of his career, Earnhardt once scored at least one win in each of 15 consecutive seasons. Johnson recently equaled that mark; he could add to that streak with a single win next year. Johnson has also won at least three Cup races in every season he’s run a full-time schedule. Those numbers still lag behind Petty, a driver who managed to win at least one top division NASCAR race in 18 consecutive seasons.
Of course, some will argue that Petty had a lot more chances because back in the day NASCAR ran a lot more races than the 36 that make up the modern schedule. As an example, Petty competed in 61 of 62 events in 1964, the year he won his first title. Yes, that meant Petty had a lot of opportunities to win races, but imagine the wear and tear on both driver and machine when the circuit often ran eight or nine races a month. In fact, NASCAR ran Grand National races on Aug. 21, 22 and 23 that year.
Others claim that Petty had an advantage in that he drove for the best team of the era (though my guess is some Wood Brothers fans would dispute that.) Certainly Petty Engineering, as it was known then was a top outfit. The team had already scored three championships with family patriarch Lee Petty at the wheel. (Neatly enough, Lee’s last title in 1959 coincided with son Richard winning Rookie of the Year honors.)
Back in the factory era when the big three (OK, big two; GM elected to sit out the game at least on paper) dominated the sport, Petty Engineering was the lead Plymouth team most years. Once the factories packed their bags and left, Petty was among the first drivers to land a big-money sponsor. It was a long-term relationship with STP, one that continued until his retirement in 1992 and then remained intact with him as an owner.
You could argue, then that Petty had an advantage with Mopar and then STP backing him for most of his career; that gave him more money and, in theory better equipment. But here’s a valid counterargument to that: Plymouth and STP chose to align themselves with Petty Engineering because the team was simply the best in the sport.
Earnhardt had a bit rockier road getting to the Cup Series without a family team to help him along. The Intimidator made nine Cup starts between 1975-78, with the only notable result a fourth-place result at Atlanta Motor Speedway driving for Rod Osterlund in ’78. That convinced Osterlund to offer Earnhardt a full-time ride in 1979. Earnhardt won that year at Bristol Motor Speedway, capturing the victory in just his 16th Cup start and claimed Rookie of the Year honors. Despite missing four races with injuries, Earnhardt finished seventh in that year’s standings. He won the title with the same team in 1980.
In 1981, Osterlund’s team collapsed financially and Earnhardt wound up finishing the season driving for Richard Childress Racing. At the end of the season, Childress told Earnhardt to seek a ride elsewhere; his team simply wasn’t good enough to give a championship driver the rides he deserved. Both men agreed down the road they’d pair up again, and in fact they became lifelong friends.
In 1982 and ’83, Earnhardt ran two largely forgettable seasons for Bud Moore (driving Fords, no less) and scored only three wins. In 1984, Earnhardt returned to Childress’s team, slid behind the wheel of the No. 3 Chevy and the rest… is history.
While the outfit was obviously very good, it’s hard to call it the best team of that era, at least initially. At that point, Junior Johnson’s team was tops on the circuit; that is, until RCR came along and knocked Johnson out of the top spot. Earnhardt’s driving talent, noticed by Childress and perfected by their partnership lifted the team from also-ran to contender. Perhaps more than either Petty or Johnson, it was Earnhardt and his skill at the wheel that made his team the best in the sport.
Johnson was blessed to get tapped for a ride with Hendrick Motorsports, an organization that was used to winning titles, and has again been blessed in that he’s been with the same team and even crew chief his entire career. As of late, Joe Gibbs’ fleet of Toyotas might be running stride for stride with HMS for honors as the top team in the sport, but the fact we’re even having this discussion indicates HMS isn’t quite dead yet.
Petty scored his seven titles in a 15-year period between 1964-79. Earnhardt achieved the same goal in 14 years between 1980-94. While Petty finished 14th or worse in the points in his last eight seasons, Earnhardt was runner-up twice more in the points after that 1994 championship. (He was also runner-up in 1989.) Only Johnson managed five straight Cup titles, though Petty did win championships in four of five years between 1971-75. Earnhardt did the same in a five-year stretch between 1990-94. Between 1986-94, Earnhardt won six titles, finished second and third in the points and had one off year (1992) when he finished 12th in the standings.
Johnson is not universally liked among fans and perhaps isn’t given the respect he deserves. Older fans may recall that Earnhardt wasn’t universally loved when he started winning races either. If Earnhardt had legions of fans, he also had a ton of detractors who considered him a dirty-driving barbarian. As for Petty, it was before my time but I’m told not everyone expected much of the “King” when he first started racing either. Fans of that era didn’t think he was tough enough to compete with the likes of Joe Weatherly. Curtis Turner, Buck Baker and, yeah, his old man, Lee Petty. Again, history typically adds perspective.
The three drivers in question come from remarkably different eras of sports history and became household names through different channels. With Petty, it was a segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Earnhardt entered America’s living rooms via ESPN and the cable TV revolution during the growth years. Johnson, through no fault of his own, is a product of the FOX era of NASCAR broadcasting, one that has hit the sport below the waterline as far as ratings and race attendance even as Darrell Waltrip all but sings love sonnets to the six-time champion.
In a way, it’s odd there was so little overlap between the primes of these three legendary drivers and other superstars of the sport. Petty was champion in 1979, but he never won another title after Earnhardt won his first in 1980. Earnhardt was champion in 1994 but never won another crown after Jeff Gordon won his first title in 1995. Gordon won his last championship in 2001, the year Earnhardt was killed at Daytona International Speedway, and his success quickly deteriorated even as Johnson’s star rose.
So in the end, Petty, Earnhardt and Johnson have all achieved remarkable things in the sport and should be celebrated as such. But in my mind, at least Petty has always been and always will be the King. He, after all, won 200 Cup-level races, more than Earnhardt and Johnson combined. Petty won 27 of those races in a single season (1967) and 10 were scored consecutively.
Finally, drivers in Petty’s era had to be more versatile. The series ran on short tracks, both dirt and paved. It ran on the superspeedways that would come to dominate the modern schedule particularly in their 1.5-mile, moderately-banked configuration that dumbs down the sport, in my eyes. Petty ran and won on quarter-mile, high-banked ovals, road courses (including a dirt road course, if you can believe it). He won seven Daytona 500s between 1964-81 (the debut of the “little cars.”) The King won 15 times at Martinsville Speedway and led 27,891 laps there in the process. In September 1970, Petty won at Raleigh, N.C., in what has turned out to be the last Cup-level dirt track race. Petty won his first Cup race on Feb. 28, 1960, and his last on July 4, 1984.
So while they say all records will eventually be broken, I very much doubt some of those marks ever will be. And, as such there is no question as to who the greatest driver in our sport is and remains.
Another possible qualifier, considering a record-tying seventh championship for Johnson certainly can’t be laid at his doorstep: Petty and Earnhardt won all seven of their titles under various points systems that counted the results of the entire season, not the Chase, which rewards prowess in the final 10 races of the year. Under a full-season points system, a disastrous stretch of races like Johnson endured this summer would have ended any chances he’d have had to win that seventh title this season.
Like I said, history sometimes only seems clear in retrospect. For decades, NASCAR’s rich history has been divided into two segments: the modern era (from 1971 on, when Winston signed on as title sponsor and the slate of races run every year was greatly reduced) and the “old days.” But it would seem that there’s now a third era in our sport’s history, one that began in 2004 with Sprint/Nextel taking over as title sponsor and the adoption of the first of the Chase formats to crown a titlist.
What shall we call this post-modern period? My suggestion is the “end game.”
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.