It started when the young driver asked the superstar for career advice.
In 2001, NASCAR was reeling from the loss of Dale Earnhardt. Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt’s fierce rival, was on the way to a fourth championship. And Jimmie Johnson was barely a blip on the collective radar.
Most fans know the story by now: Johnson asked Gordon for some advice on his next steps. He was racing for a mid-tier Xfinity Series team but wasn’t sure what was next. His team hoped to jump to Cup, but they didn’t have the funding or experience to be competitive right away. Gordon had just signed a contract with Hendrick Motorsports that included half-ownership of a brand-new team: car No. 48. And Gordon and Ricky Hendrick, the son of team owner Rick Hendrick, were eyeing Johnson for the ride. The big question was whether the young driver could win at NASCAR’s top level.
In Driver vs. Driver, we take a look into the careers of the sport’s greats and not-so greats. The rules are simple: drivers’ careers must overlap, and they must have something in common that makes comparison not only valid but also inevitable.
This month, we delve into some classic questions: Richard Petty or David Pearson? Petty or Dale Earnhardt? Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon? Gordon or Johnson? From the pre-modern era into the 21st century, there really are no winners; that’s up to the ages to decide. But there sure are some great battles.
Gordon had once been considered the biggest threat to the record of seven Cup championships. He was riding so much momentum in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and nobody really stood in his way with authority. After he hired Johnson, he’d never win another title.
At least as a driver. As a car owner, he shares in seven more because it was Johnson, not Gordon, who would tie the all-time mark. But titles alone don’t make a driver. So who will go down as the better driver?
Two championship-winning NASCAR drivers who raced under the Hendrick Motorsports banner together for 14 full-time seasons and parts of two more.
Jeff Gordon became the face of NASCAR practically on arrival, providing a clean-cut foil to Dale Earnhardt’s grizzled, tough image.
Right away, the answer seems clear: Gordon with four titles, Johnson with seven. Gordon last won a title in 2001 and didn’t win another before he retired in 2015; Johnson reeled off five straight from 2006 to 2010 and added two more (2013, 2016) to tie the all-time record.
Then again, championships aren’t everything. While it’s obvious that Gordon raced four more full-time seasons than Johnson (we’re excluding 2020 since it’s in progress, by the way), the numbers still speak for themselves.
Wins: Gordon 93, Johnson 83. While Johnson still has some time to win some more, I seriously doubt 11 wins are in the cards for the No. 48 this season.
Gordon also leads in both top fives and top 10s. He has 97 more top-five finishes than Johnson and 110 more top 10s. Johnson only has just south of 19,000 laps led in his career, while Gordon is just shy of 25,000. The Wonder Boy also leads Seven-Time in average starting and finishing positions.
It’s a blowout in the poles column too: Johnson has 36 poles in 18 seasons of full-time competition, excluding this year. That’s an average of just two per year, and he has three full seasons of failing to start on pole at all. Just three times did he even start on the front row, and he didn’t at all in 2018.
Meanwhile, Gordon sits third all-time in pole positions, leading the field to green 81 times in his career. He notched at least one in every single full-time season he raced, averaging 3.5 a season, including five or more in seven seasons and eight in one season alone.
The Wonder Boy also had seasons of double-digit wins in his career three times in back-to-back-to-back years. Johnson only won 10 or more races once. Additionally, he peaked at 20 top-five finishes in a season; Gordon had 26 in 1998, breaking the 20-mark four times.
On that note, as for top-10 finishes, Johnson never managed more than 24 in a season, which he did five times and broke 20 in general 14 consecutive times. He’s currently on a five-year streak of less than 20. Gordon also did it 14 times but spread those seasons out further with a peak of 30 in 2007.
Gordon’s last title came in 2001, while Johnson didn’t start winning titles until 2006, which began a five-year streak. Those five, however, came after the Chase for the Sprint Cup was established and all but 12 drivers were erased from competition.
Johnson’s 2013 championship was also under the Chase format, but the record-tying seventh was won under overlapping chaos. Carl Edwards, arguably the dominant car and leader in the championship, crashed with fellow title contender Joey Logano with a few laps left. Johnson slipped through the ensuing mayhem, getting the lead on the restart and checking out to win his seventh title.
Right place, right time? Yes. To be fair, Johnson had worked his way through the previous rounds to get to the finale, but had been a non-factor that entire night, starting 14th and never leading a lap until the final three circuits.
It’s more of a commentary on the flawed playoff system than anything, but also shows the disparity between the standings scenarios Gordon and Johnson won their titles in.
Even racing under different points systems, Gordon’s dominance in several championship years is staggering. Although he won his first two titles with point gaps of less than 40, his third and fourth crowns came with 300+ point advantages over second place. That’s unreal and he also clinched the latter two titles before those seasons’ final races.
Johnson, meanwhile, is a bit all over the place. His first titles came with comfortable margins of 56, 77 and 69 points, respectively. Title number four was with a 141-point gap, but then things steadily decreased, starting with a razor-thin 39-point margin in 2010. That’s a lot of points position-wise, but the gap pales in comparison to how hotly that title was contested.
Denny Hamlin won more races and had the points lead going into Homestead, but a lap 25 incident with Greg Biffle kept Hamlin from getting to the front and winning the championship. Three years later, another Joe Gibbs Racing driver nearly beat Johnson. Matt Kenseth finished second behind the No. 48 by 19 points and Edwards completed the trio of Gibbs drivers who failed to outlast Johnson. They didn’t, but they came incredibly close. No one was within a prayer of touching Gordon during titles three and four.
For the sake of argument, say things were adjusted to how they originally were for NASCAR and remained that way throughout Johnson’s career. Just points, no Chase or playoffs.
According to a Racing Reference piece written in 2017, Johnson would likely have won just two of the five straight he actually won (2006 and 2008) with a full-season points system, as well as winning the 2013 title regardless. He also would’ve taken 2006 and 2012 on points, bringing the grand total to five. Giving credit where it’s due, the No. 48 team absolutely figured out the Chase system early on, but it would have been fascinatingly different if the circumstances were changed.
Finally, Gordon didn’t ever suffer the fall-off Johnson did during his career. He won races in nearly every year, including his last full-time effort, while Johnson is continuing his dry spell. We’re approaching three years since his last points-paying win at Dover on June 4, 2017.
Seven championships? Sure. Eight this year, if the No. 48 team can get it together? Maybe. But I’m taking Gordon every time. – Adam Cheek
First of all, let me begin by pointing out that Gordon won four championships in his first nine full-time seasons. That’s pretty impressive. But then he failed to win another title in the following 14 years.
Gordon’s last championship was in 2001. What in the world happened in 2002 to change that? The biggest change at Hendrick Motorsports that season was Johnson beginning his rookie season. What a strange coincidence.
Everybody looks at Johnson’s five straight championships and talks about how great of a run it was. Well, the five championships were impressive, but it pales in comparison to just how great Johnson was from his first season in 2002 to his sixth championship in 2013.
In that 12 year span, Johnson finished out of the top five in points just once, an off-season after the five-peat in 2011, where he finished an absolutely dismal sixth in points. He scored six championships in his first 12 years. That’s something that will never be done again in a major American sport. It took Tom Brady almost 20 to get to six. And Johnson got it done in a dozen.
In eight of those seasons, Johnson finished in the top two in points. Nine in the top three. Show me any other driver, any other athlete outside of Michael Schumacher who has accomplished something like this in a 12-year span.
Johnson and Gordon raced against each other 515 times, in the same exact equipment from the same exact race team. A few weeks ago in Petty versus Pearson, I noted that the head-to-head there was a bit unfair because it was Pearson’s entire career, including the early seasons where Pearson didn’t have the name or money to have a fair fight with Petty.
It would be the same case here, because Gordon had nine seasons in Cup prior to Johnson and thus would have a significant experience advantage. It would be if Johnson’s stats didn’t outclass Gordon anyway.
In those 515 races, Johnson won 288 times, almost 60% of the time. Johnson won 41 more overall races than Gordon in that timespan, had 21 more top-five finishes, had 30 more top 10s and had a full position on Gordon in average finish. Oh yeah, and Johnson won six championships against Gordon compared to Gordon’s… zero.
Johnson is not a good driver to compete in these head-to-head style competitions. The reality is that only one driver, Tony Stewart, was able to consistently challenge Johnson when it came to championships in his career, and even then, Johnson beat Stewart 296 times in 517 races. These are two first-ballot Hall of Fame drivers, two legends. And Johnson makes them both look like Michael McDowell in these comparisons.
Johnson is basically a what-if on the surface. What if Larry Bird had no Magic Johnson in the 1980s? Actually, that’s a stretch, because Johnson won championships against a number of series champions and current/future NASCAR Hall of Famers. It’s more like the 1990s NBA, which had a number of great talents (Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal, etc.) completely overshadowed by Michael Jordan, who was unquestionably the best in his time and has a great argument to be the G.O.A.T. of basketball.
Just replace those basketball legends with names like Stewart, Gordon, Edwards, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Kenseth… jeez, this list just keeps going. There has never been a time where the field was more loaded top-to-bottom with talent than in Johnson’s prime as a driver.
In these types of comparisons, Johnson is kind of like Superman, a now-forgotten nickname Mark Martin gave Johnson in 2009. If we were comparing superheroes, there’s really no way of beating Superman in a fair fight based on facts and logic. The only real way to say a superhero could outright beat Superman is through very cheap means, such as saying he’d be nothing with Chad Knaus and that he wouldn’t win championships without the playoffs. Oh, sorry, I got my notes confused. The point is, both just don’t lend themselves well to these type of comparisons.
One last thing. It’s inherently wrong to just say that the No. 48 team wouldn’t win championships because of this other points system that has been shoehorned in after the fact. If Johnson and Knaus cared about getting more points than everybody else, they would have done that. It’s just that they cared more about… winning championships. The championship doesn’t always go to the best driver, it goes to the driver who played the game the best. And nobody played the game like the No. 48 team did in their prime. But looking deeper into his statistics, there’s no doubt that they didn’t just play the game better than anybody. ~Michael Finley