There’s been a lot of comparisons lately between the long winless droughts at the end of the careers of fellow seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champions Richard Petty and Jimmie Johnson.
Petty went winless in his last eight seasons, while Johnson hasn’t been to victory lane since June 2017, both a far cry from their primes. Both men ruled the sport when they were at the best, and it was and is equally hard to see both struggle at the end of their careers.
But that is where the similarities between the waning years of Petty and Johnson end.
For starters, Petty’s unhappy ending makes a lot more sense than Johnson’s. In 1981, Petty Enterprises expanded to a second full-time Cup team for Richard’s son Kyle but tried to do so with essentially the same budget and resources it was using for one car. The team struggled as a result, with Richard going winless in 1982.
Richard Petty left his family team for Mike Curb after 1983, with whom he won the final two races of his career. Kyle Petty left after the following season. The result was a shop in Level Cross, N.C., that basically lay dormant for the 1985 season before The King returned.
So Petty Enterprises essentially started up as a new team in 1986, and it struggled like one, with Petty posting 11 top 10s, the least since his strike season in 1965. The team improved the following season, with Petty more than doubling his top fives and finishing eighth in points, not bad for a 50-year-old driver.
The decline started again, though, for Petty, who only accumulated one top five and seven top 10s over the final five years of his career. The lowest point was in 1989, when Petty failed to qualify for four races.
But Petty didn’t forget to drive over night. Sure, he was now in his 50s and wasn’t the driver he once was. But around that time, teams with much bigger budgets formed, with the likes of Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush and Roger Penske invading the sport. The Pettys were one of the only old-school, family-run teams to survive that era; no wonder they weren’t competing for wins and championships.
Ironically enough, Petty had an offer to drive for Hendrick Motorsports back in 1984 but chose Curb instead. To think what could’ve been had that pair of NASCAR Hall of Famers been paired together.
On the flip side, Johnson’s slump essentially came out of nowhere. He entered 2017 riding high after winning his seventh championship, and he kicked off the season by winning three of the first 13 races.
But Johnson only scored one top five the rest of the season and hasn’t looked like his old self since.
Last year, Johnson missed the playoffs for the first time in his career, and he’s right around the bubble this year. Johnson’s really only had two shots at winning since he last won: the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL in 2018 and this year’s first race at Darlington Raceway. He spun out in both circumstances.
One of the reasons for Johnson’s drought is that Chevrolet hasn’t seemed to have the speed of Ford and Toyota the past few seasons. Additionally, Hendrick is not quite the powerhouse that it was in, say, 2007.
Still, HMS from 2017 to now still has much more competitive equipment than Petty Enterprises had from 1986-92. Plus, the issues can’t entirely be chalked up to Chevy and HMS, as Chase Elliott has won seven races and Alex Bowman twice since Johnson’s last win.
But while Johnson doesn’t have as many external reasons for his drought, his falloff hasn’t been as bad as some make it out to be. Had Johnson outmaneuvered Martin Truex Jr. and won the ROVAL in 2018, he could’ve potentially made a deep playoff run. This year, Johnson has missed a race due to testing positive for COVID-19, and he still has a shot at the playoffs and is ahead in points of many younger drivers in good equipment. If Johnson makes it in and with the way the playoffs are now, he could get hot the final 10 races and still come away with a walk-off title.
Johnson’s decline is made out to be more than it is simply because people are so used to him winning races and competing for championships. I’m sure people felt the same way about Petty in 1978 when he went winless for the first time since his rookie season. And what did The King do? He bounced back the following year and won his seventh title.
But even if Johnson doesn’t bounce back and give a good run at the title this year, do these last three years define him? Even if Petty spent his final seven seasons struggling to keep his family team afloat, does that define him? No on both accounts. What defines both is that they were each the greatest of their respective time.
Though the eras they raced in, their accomplishments and their droughts aren’t comparable, what they do seem to have in common is that many try to diminish what both did in their legendary careers. Older fans diminish Johnson’s championships because he did so in the playoff era. Younger fans diminish Petty’s wins because there weren’t as many competitive cars back then.
But a win is a win, a championship is a championship and NASCAR legend is a NASCAR legend, no matter the circumstances of what earned them any of those accomplishments. So instead of comparing Petty and Johnson, let’s instead appreciate them both for each of their remarkable journeys. Appreciate Johnson for what’s left of his NASCAR career and appreciate Petty while he’s still healthy enough to be a team owner and go to the track.
Look back fondly on all that they were able to do in their driving careers, because there will never be another driver like either of them.