For many years, there were two. There was The King, who had come along when the sport itself was still in its infancy and who drove it from the tiny, dusty bullrings of the Southeast to the big tracks of a budding national phenomenon. Just when it seemed that The King’s sport was a getting a little too big, a little too corporate, along came the Intimidator, a throwback who was the polar opposite of corporate America even as he learned to embrace it himself.
For more than two decades, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt towered above the sport of NASCAR, larger than life because they had won so much, so often, at so many storied venues. With changes in the points system, it’s safe to say that Petty’s 200-win mark at the sports highest level will stand for all time. Earnhardt’s total of 76 is more modest, eighth all-time, but his death came before he’d have retired otherwise, meaning there might have been more.
But the championships; that’s where the two stood apart. Seven apiece. A number that nobody else came close to, though some tried. When Cale Yarborough won three in a row, there were those who thought he’d be the one to rival Petty’s number. Then Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip took their shots at seven, falling short shy of halfway there, though their names invoke the word legend. After Earnhardt joined Petty on the sport’s shortest list in 1994, a kid came along who won everything in sight, though he was cut from a distinctly different mold. Jeff Gordon seemingly did nothing but win in the late 1990s, and it seemed only a matter of time until he reached that magic number, maybe even eclipsed it. He came closer than anyone else, winning four titles, but changes in the sport hurt his chances at more.
Tony Stewart won three after Gordon, but he wasn’t the threat year in and year out that Gordon had been, and never really settled into a championship groove.
But even as Gordon was winning races and titles himself, he was setting in motion another run at immortality. Wanting to cement his four-time champion driver into the No. 24 for the foreseeable future, team owner Rick Hendrick made Gordon an offer he couldn’t refuse: a lifetime contract and an ownership stake in a brand-new Hendrick Motorsports team, the No. 48 (24 times two). Gordon could even choose the driver as long as sponsor Lowe’s approved.
Nobody anticipated Gordon’s choice, a soft-spoken Californian who’d had modest success in the XFINITY Series, but nothing Earth-shattering. No list of race wins or title bids, though he did make all the highlight reels as a rookie for a spectacular crash at Watkins Glen.
Hendrick knew Jimmie Johnson because the young driver was a friend of his son, Ricky’s. He liked the driver well enough, but even he was surprised at Gordon’s endorsement. Still, he kept to his word and allowed Gordon to pitch Johnson to Lowe’s. It wasn’t an easy sell, but the company liked his quiet confidence, so in the end it agreed. Lowe’s would try it out, and if it didn’t work, there were other drivers.
And so a kid who grew up in a trailer park and learned as a youngster how to find sponsors because that was the only way he could afford to race found himself in a top-level ride. In his rookie season, Lowe’s made a television commercial in which Gordon asks Johnson if he’s ready to win. Johnson proved he was. And he’s proved time and again that he was more than up to the challenge.
Lowe’s is still on the hood of Johnson’s car every week, one of the last full-season sponsorships in the sport.
He racked up the titles at a ridiculous pace: five in five seasons from 2006-2010. Another in 2013. But then NASCAR threw a curveball by making sweeping changes to the championship format. Some said it was a response to Johnson’s titles, and if it was, it looked effective for two seasons as Johnson never made it to the finals, let alone the title.
And he wasn’t getting any younger. As his performance dipped and his team slipped a step behind rival Joe Gibbs Racing, a seventh title began to kook out of reach for Johnson. Would the two, Petty and Earnhardt, stand alone after all?
Even in a strong 2016 season, there were doubts. Johnson looked as strong as ever, but was that enough? As the final race got underway, it was vintage Johnson driving from the very back of the field with a calculated vengeance, faster than anyone, but then he stalled out behind the other three championship contenders. His car wasn’t quite as fast and his team couldn’t quite find the magic.
So Johnson made his own. With 10 laps to go, a crash changed the complexion of the race, of the entire season. He suddenly found himself in position to take the title from Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, but whether he could hold off their faster cars was very much a question. Yet another restart with fuel running low brought another challenge, equalizing the field.
The green flag flew. Two to go. Johnson held NASCAR history in his hands, his to lose.
And then there were three.
For a generation, there was Petty, alone.
For another, there were Petty and Earnhardt.
For the next one, there will be Petty, Earnhardt and Johnson. A step above. Immortal.
What’s Johnson’s place in the whole thing? He didn’t bring the sport into the public eye. He doesn’t use intimidation so much as domination. And he won seven times with the Chase.
Johnson didn’t make the rules, but he won under them. He didn’t have enough time in the pre-Chase era to make a real splash. That Johnson’s titles are not full-season titles might be a flaw in the system, but it’s not a flaw in the driver.
Could there be an eighth? Johnson is 41, so it’s possible, but will grow more unlikely with each passing season now, especially with the current championship rules. We’ve been down this road before; there was a day when we all thought it was only a matter of time until Gordon won seven and then eight titles. Johnson’s no sure thing.
And that’s OK.
He’s one of three, and the company he now keeps speaks volumes. He’s as genuine as Petty, as hungry as Earnhardt, but at the end of the day Johnson isn’t The King or The Intimidator. He just the kid who once feared for his job if he didn’t win and win often. The one who still harbored that fear after winning a title. The kid who once wore socks on his hands for gloves and lens-less goggles in imitation of his racing heroes. The driver who a new generation of race fans will pretend to be as they race their big wheels in the backyard. Legend. Immortal.
And today, there are three.