December 7, 2013 — Blog by Jacob Seelman for Race Chaser Online — Charlotte, NC — The 2013 season has been over for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for about a month now, and as the 13 Chase drivers hit the Wynn Las Vegas last night for the annual awards banquet and champion’s coronation, it got me thinking about a topic that was hot immediately after the finale at Homestead.
Is Jimmie Johnson the best driver ever in NASCAR?
Critics are quick to jump on the question with a hasty and resounding “No!”, that the “best-ever” honor is reserved solely for Richard Petty on the basis of his 7 championships and 200 wins, both series records. Many add the argument can also be made to deadlock the late Dale Earnhardt on top of the list along with the King, not only for his 7 titles but because we never got to see what Earnhardt might have been capable of in the twilight of his career due to his untimely passing at Daytona in 2001.
But when Jimmie Johnson’s name gets thrown into the equation, people start to get a bit…prickly, to say the least.
I seriously don’t understand why that is though. I mean, the man’s won six Sprint Cups in twelve years in the sport. Six out of the last eight when you look at the record books. Surely that entitles Jimmie to be part of the grand discussion?
I know some of you are already fussing at your computer screens, going, “Jimmie only won his titles because of the Chase,” or accusing he and crew chief Chad Knaus of cheating or overstepping the rules numerous times (which you’ll notice, they were never penalized for a rules infraction in 2013). Throw out your personal opinions, throw out your view of the points system, throw out the points system itself, and let’s look at the facts.
Jimmie Johnson has 6 NASCAR premier series championships, just one less than the King and the late Dale Earnhardt. Let’s keep in mind here that not only did the King win his titles under multiple different points systems, but he did so in an era where drivers would race 3-4 times a week and sometimes up to 75 times a year to determine the champion, and few drivers made a concerted effort to run every race on the schedule. Dale Earnhardt won all seven of his titles under the same points system, and he did so in a more competitive era, perhaps providing a better benchmark for comparison to the man we now call “Six-pack”.
Jimmie Johnson has won all six of his NASCAR Sprint Cups in the most competitive era the sport has ever seen, when there are roughly 20 drivers who on any given day could score maximum points. Yes, the Chase may have aided Johnson in that effort somewhat, and yes, people make the argument that Johnson would have only three titles under the full-season system, but here’s where I debunk those arguments. Jimmie Johnson has adapted his racing style to win championships in his era just as the King and Dale Earnhardt did in their eras. Petty and Earnhardt did what they had to in their times of dominating the sport to take home the hardware. Jimmie is simply playing with the hand he’s dealt. And so far, he’s done it to perfection.
On the wins front, no one is ever going to match Richard Petty’s career mark of 200 Cup level victories in the modern era. There simply aren’t enough races on the schedule per year, and the level of competition is too high for one driver to win 15, 18, 20 races in a year the way Petty did back in the 50s and 60s. So here, I say Dale Earnhardt’s mark on the wins list is our best comparison to Johnson.
Earnhardt had 76 career Cup victories racing a schedule similar to the one that Johnson is race now in terms of the calendar being roughly 30-36 races per year. Johnson has racked up 66 Cup victories so far, and he’s averaging 5.5 wins per season in his full time Cup career, with 12 seasons under his belt. At that clip, Johnson will bypass Earnhardt’s win total and likely start climbing towards Jeff Gordon territory (3rd; 88 wins) within the next two years.
So how do you compare Johnson to Petty on that front then? Let’s look at career win percentage then, shall we? The King, in a whopping career total of 1184 NASCAR premier series starts, won 200 times. That’s a win percentage of 16.892%. Now JJ, in just 435 (yes, only 435) career Sprint Cup starts, has 66 victories, for a career percentage to date of 15.172%. While he’s not getting the Gatorade bath at quite the same clip as Petty, Johnson does have the highest winning percentage of any active driver, including his teammate, Jeff Gordon (12.138%).
And you can certainly make the undisputed point that all three are the best of their respective eras at what they do best, wheeling a NASCAR Sprint Cup car. But, the argument can be made that Johnson is by far performing consistently at an elite level in the most competitive era this sport has ever seen. There are 18-24 drivers every week with a shot at winning, and probably 15 of them every year go in with a valid shot of being able to make a championship charge. A far cry from the days of old when maybe 5 guys every year had a shot at winning the title, if that in some years.
And even when you talk big races, Johnson has the numbers in that category to fall among the legends as well. He’s won two Daytona 500s (Petty has 7, a number likely that will never fall, and Earnhardt 1), a record-tying 4 Brickyard 400s (his mentor Gordon also has 4, and Earnhardt won the ’95 race), 3 Coca-Cola 600s (Petty won 2 and Earnhardt 3) and two Southern 500s (Petty won it once and Earnhardt 3 times). Not to mention Johnson has also won twice at Talladega, another track that has been long lauded as one of NASCAR’s crown jewels.
But with all that being said, do I think Jimmie Johnson is the best driver ever in NASCAR? I don’t right now. Johnson still has 5-10 more good years in him in my opinion before I think he’ll be ready to hang up the helmet. What I personally need to see out of Jimmie before he retires in order for my opinion to be swayed is that record 8th championship, as well as his teammate and mentor, Jeff Gordon’s, third-place mark on the wins list equaled or exceeded, which I think Johnson will easily at least have an opportunity to do. Who knows, if he has a couple of blitz seasons like he did in 2004 (8 wins) or 2007 (10 wins), then we could be discussing him having a shot at David Pearson’s 105 win mark. I’d also like to see Jimmie add one more Daytona 500 win to his resume, although in that regard, we all know how unpredictable the 500 can be to win (see Pete Hamilton, 1970, Derrike Cope, 1990, or Trevor Bayne, 2011).
And do remember, we’re comparing what Johnson is doing right now to what Earnhardt, Petty, and the other greats have already finished achieving. Johnson isn’t done, and his legacy only has the potential to grow as he continues to add notches to the already impressive crown that he’s fashioning for himself.
He’s putting up big numbers in the toughest era the sport has ever seen. I think it will only continue to get tougher from here on out for Johnson and the Lowe’s team to continue performing at the elite level they have for the last 8 years. If they can continue tacking on the accolades, continue doing exactly what they’ve been doing as the stakes get higher, the pressure mounts further, and the competition gets tougher, then I will say that Jimmie Johnson is the best driver NASCAR has ever seen.
He’s just not the best quite yet.
PHOTO CREDIT: NASCAR via Getty Images