(Graphic: Jared Haas)

Driver vs. Driver Hall of Famers: Lee Petty vs. Junior Johnson

Over 50 wins on NASCAR’s top circuit will put a driver into the Hall of Fame — every eligible driver to ever achieve that mark has already been enshrined, and there’s no doubt that the three active drivers who have achieved that number will be first-ballot locks.

This month, we look closer at the drivers who have had their names called to be inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. From the early days through the playoff era, these drivers have been selected among the best ever in the sport. Here, there really are no winners; that’s up to the ages to decide. But there sure are some great conversations about the best of the best.

As if winning over 50 races isn’t impressive enough, both drivers in this week’s battle, each North Carolina natives, won dozens upon dozens of races as car owners, with their reach lasting well into NASCAR’s modern era. Though their driving careers also made them pioneers of the sport.

Lee Petty, the patriarch of Petty Enterprises and the first of four generations of Petty drivers to race in NASCAR’s top Series, was known as a fierce competitor who hated to lose. He often went to lengths to ensure he didn’t, including once protesting the results of a race when his son Richard had been declared the winner over him.

Junior Johnson never won a NASCAR title because he never ran a full season, but he still made the 50-win mark. As an owner, he fielded cars for many drivers, nine of whom who are also in the Hall of Fame. He’s a connection to NASCAR’s roots in the prohibition, having run his share of moonshine and served time for it.

Which of these two legends of the sport was better?  Here’s the debate.

Lee Petty

It was Feb. 24, 1961.

An infamous racing tycoon sat at the bottom of a hill in a mangled heap of twisted metal and broken glass. He was suffering.

Moments earlier, a pristine baby blue Plymouth was zipping around the three-year-old Daytona International Speedway. Badged No. 42, this world-class racing machine was out on its typical Sunday drive, kicking butt as usual … until it wasn’t.

Hooked by another competitor, the car soon blasted through the guard rail and took flight before violently bounding down a massive embankment and coming to rest on a meager fence post. It was over.

If you know anything about NASCAR, you have certainly heard about its most famous family: the Pettys. Richard Petty became its figurehead and set the standard for NASCAR’s popularity, as he is still celebrated for his record-setting 200 victories and seven championships. Richard’s brother Maurice was the man behind the scenes, supplying the durability and dominance under the hood. Richard’s son Kyle became the flamboyant fulcrum that successfully transitioned the Petty name from its mundane southern roots to national relevance as NASCAR rapidly expanded. And even though Kyle’s teenage son was tragically killed in a racing accident, Adam was prepped to carry the namesake into the future.

Yet, none of the Petty legacies would have been possible without one man: Lee Petty.

The legend of Lee Petty began all the way back at the first ever NASCAR race. The Petty patriarch and future Hall of Famer actually brought out the first caution in NASCAR history when he flipped a borrowed Buick Roadmaster at Charlotte in 1949. Even after the shaky start, he soon set the world on fire.

Although he is sometimes overlooked because of the successes of the generations that came after him, Petty’s career was so improbable that many in the racing community were certain that some of the statistics and records he posted could never be beaten. But of course his son came along and flipped the world upside down.

Yet, 18 poles, 332 top 10s, three championships and 54 wins in just 427 starts aren’t too shabby. Most notably for the eldest Petty, his 7.6 average finishing position is absolutely unthinkable, especially for a driver with over 200 starts. He was such a serious competitor that he even protested his own son at the Lakewood 500 in 1959 when he petitioned NASCAR to reexamine its finish after a supposed scoring error. Petty believed that his son Richard, who was awarded the checkered flag, should have been stripped of his victory, and that he should have been awarded the win himself.

If you are the first victor of the Daytona 500, you ought to be considered one of the best and remembered for the rest of time. We all know of that infamous finish of the inaugural Great American Race when Petty, Johnny Beauchamp and the lapped car of Joe Weatherly were straddled three-wide in a photo finish captured from the lens of T. Taylor Warren’s camera. Although Beauchamp was incorrectly awarded the victory initially, Petty again protested. Thanks in part to Warren’s famous photograph, Petty was justly awarded the biggest win of his career.

Despite wins, championships and argued finishes, there was something different about Petty that made him better in not only this debate but also among aspiring racers of the day. Unlike anyone else, it was Petty who actually realized that there was money to be made in Bill France Sr.’s great experiment. In the 1950s, Petty theorized that he could potentially make a living in France’s new motorsport called NASCAR, and he did just that. Yes, there were also the Carl Keikhaefers, Raymond Parks and Frank Christians of the world, but only Petty made it out of the decade.

Petty Enterprises, the most feared team in NASCAR history, set the business model for everyday folks to survive. Not only as the driver but also as the business owner, Petty proved it could work. But then came that fateful day in 1961 when he sailed out of the ballpark and landed at the bottom of a tall hill with none other than Beauchamp during a Daytona 500 qualifying race, just two years after he won the event. For the next four months, Petty sat in a hospital with severe injuries. Although he made sporadic starts afterward, his driver days were practically over. Like so many others, his career came to a sudden and impromptu end.

At the finish of Petty’s long road to recover from his injuries, he slipped into the full-time ownership role. Not one for the spotlight, Petty sat back and watched his family thrive as NASCAR grew, but also stayed as a quiet guide and famed symbol of its organization. While his sons flourished, Petty  put drivers with different last names in his rides too. Several, including Jim Paschal, Pete Hamilton, Bobby Hamilton and John Andretti found success by winning races, including the 1970 Daytona 500 crown for Hamilton.

Petty not only paved the way for Junior Johnson but also for car owners of generations afterward. Without the Petty name, the existence of NASCAR would look a lot different. Even today, the legacy of Petty lives on. Thad Moffitt, the son of Rebecca Petty-Moffitt and great-grandson of Lee, is currently cutting his teeth in the ARCA Menards Series. While the Petty Enterprises nameplate has drifted into memory, Richard Petty Motorsports continues to field cars each week in the top echelon of NASCAR for Bubba Wallace.

While it is certainly debatable, Lee Petty just might be the reason NASCAR has become a sustainable business. –Zach Gillispie

Junior Johnson

The debate of Lee Petty versus Junior Johnson on the surface looks a little lopsided. Petty has three championships, while Johnson has no championships as a driver. Petty has a way better average finish of 7.6 compared to Johnson’s 13.5, and Petty has four more wins than Johnson. Both drivers have a Daytona 500 win. This debate should be an open-and-shut case that Petty is a better driver.

Not so fast. Digging deeper into the data shows that Johnson drove ahead of his era and produced results similar to Petty. Johnson didn’t compete in full seasons while Petty did, which is a big reason why Petty has more championships than Johnson’s zero. Excluding the equipment that they drove, Johnson was a better driver than Lee Petty.

Johnson and Petty had two different driving personas. Petty conserved his racecar to the finish of the race. Johnson, however, was more aggressive in his car. Petty finished 75% of the races he started, while Johnson finished less than 50%. Johnson had 15 races where he led over 100 laps in a race yet did not finish the race. In the 46 races that Junior Johnson won a pole, he didn’t finish 22 of them. Johnson had seven races where he led all the laps up until he fell out of the race. He literally drove the wheels off of his cars.

Johnson took high risks but received high awards as well. He earned about $70,000 more in his career than Petty. With inflation, that is about a $400,000 difference. Purse money was a lot more important in the points system back then. To simplify, NASCAR awarded more points to races that had bigger purses. Races at Darlington Raceway or Daytona International Speedway would be worth a lot more points than tracks like Reading Fairgrounds or Wilson Speedway. Those purse-weighted races vastly affected the standings in 1965 from what it would be in the modern era.

1965 Stats
Junior Johnson: 36 races, 13 wins, 18 Top Fives, 19 Top 10s
Darel Dieringer: 35 races, 1 win, 10 Top Fives, 15 Top 10s

Under NASCAR’s current system, Johnson would have likely finished ahead of Dieringer, but that was not the case in 1965’s system. Johnson and Dieringer both had a similar average finish, yet Dieringer finished third in the standings, and Johnson finished 12th.

The reason Johnson finished so low in the points was his terrible performances in big purse races. He led 27 laps in the Daytona 500 and wrecked out of the lead. He finished last in the Southern 500 and had poor finishes at the second Charlotte Motor Speedway race and Rockingham Speedway. Those races cost Johnson a top 10 in points in 1965, which was arguably his best season. He ran part-time that year, missing 19 races.

Johnson only ran more than half of a season four times in his career. In comparison, Petty ran at least half of the season from 1949-60. During their fuller seasons, Petty ran 89% of the races while Junior Johnson ran in 58% of the races. The fewest races that Johnson missed in a season was nine. Even though Junior Johnson never won a championship, win stats are more important to look at for a career especially in this era.

The win total for Johnson and Petty is comparable. Petty won races in 12% of his starts, while Johnson won 15% of his starts. If the races that Johnson DNFed did not count toward his stats, Johnson would have a winning percentage over 33%. In context, Kyle Busch‘s winning percentage during his prime in the NASCAR Xfinity Series from 2008-11 was 35%.

Johnson’s average finish in races that he was running at the finish was 4.0 compared to Petty’s 4.6. Johnson would thrive in today’s NASCAR, as cars are built stronger, and NASCAR awards drivers leading at various stages of races and treats all races equally.

The Ronda, N.C., icon had a legendary career, amassing 50 wins, and he was even credited for discovering the draft. If Johnson had kept up his winning pace, he could’ve been in the same conversation as David Pearson. Johnson proved he knew his way around a racecar, later accumulating six championships and 132 wins as an owner.

Johnson’s career is the perfect example of how it is hard to judge a career off of a stat line. He was going drive hard whether it was lap 11, lap 109 or lap 200. That driving mentality cost him many more wins but helped him secure his spot in NASCAR lore. –Jared Haas

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Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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