Published November 24, 2010
The argument is raging like a presidential debate.
It’s the question everyone in the motorsports world is asking, and everyone is taking sides. The arguments are as heated as a political campaign, and there is more fence straddling than at a championship rodeo.
His detractors in the grandstands flatly refuse to acknowledge Johnson as the best ever, demonstrating their discontent with his five-year dominance and their pure hatred for the driver who – gasp! – is not named Petty or Earnhardt.
Most pundits concede that he’s one of the greatest, but not yet the best. He’s top-five, for sure, they say, but not quite equal to all-time greats Richard Petty, David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt. Not until he wins more than 100 races like Petty and Pearson or seven championships like Petty and Earnhardt.
Some don’t even give him that much credit, saying that he won’t crack the Cale Yarborough-Bobby Allison-Darrell Waltrip-Jeff Gordon category until he wins more races.
Such arguments are narrow-minded drivel that understates Johnson’s mind-boggling accomplishments.
I’ll say what most know but for some reason have a hard time accepting or admitting.
Yes, Jimmie Johnson is the greatest ever.
Not in a few years, after he wins his seventh title, and not years down the road when he has accumulated 80 victories, but right now.
As of Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010, he is the best the sport has ever seen.
Johnson’s five straight championships is the greatest feat in NASCAR history – greater even than the seven championships won by Petty and Earnhardt.
Tony Stewart, a two-time Cup champion who has a keen knowledge of NASCAR history and a close relationship with many of its legends, admits that Johnson is the best. And that takes some humility for a guy who rarely concedes anything to anybody.
“He’s the best that’s ever been,” Stewart said Sunday night. “Five straight championships, in this era, that proves it.”
Johnson’s five straight titles in NASCAR’s most competitive era trump seven won over a lengthy career.
Petty and Earnhardt both ruled the sport for long periods of time, but neither won more than two titles in a row. Both won four in five years, but each had an off year during that stretch.
Petty stumbled to fifth in the standings in 1973 and won just six races, a paltry sum for his lofty standards in that era. Earnhardt won just one race and slumped to 12th in the standings in 1992, one of just two seasons when he finished outside the top 10 in his 22-year career.
Johnson has yet to have an off year. In nine full seasons, he has finished first or second in points seven times. His worst points finish is fifth, including his rookie season.
Neither Petty nor Earnhardt raced against the depth of competition that Johnson has faced and neither won championships in a tense, pressure-packed playoff atmosphere like the Chase.
Though old-timers and die-hards hate to hear it, Petty won most of his titles against inferior competition in an era when few drivers ran the full schedule.
Six of his seven titles were won in seasons in which only five or six drivers – or less – competed for the championship, and most of them weren’t in the same league as Petty. Three of his seven titles were won against James Hylton and Dave Marcis, journeymen drivers who combined to win just seven races throughout long careers.
It wasn’t until 1979 that Petty faced any real competition, winning a close points battle with Waltrip, Allison and Yarborough.
Earnhardt faced stiffer competition, but even then, in the 1980s and early ’90s, the field of potential winners and championship contenders wasn’t as deep as it is today.
And winning a title in today’s Chase is much more difficult than winning one under the old, season-long points format.
Earnhardt won four of his seven titles by building big point leads and then cruising to the title, clinching it before the season finale. He was a master stroker, finishing where he needed to in order to maintain or pad his lead.
Johnson has had no such luxury. He has won all five titles in fierce battles against 10 or 12 other drivers.
Each year, he has had to rise to the occasion during a 10-race, pressure-packed playoff race. And he has done it by winning races and producing top-five finishes at crucial moments.
Of his 53 career victories, 19 have come in the Chase, 13 in his five championship seasons. In Earnhardt’s seven championship seasons, he won just 11 races in the final 10 of the season.
What Johnson has proven is that no one in the history of the sport was better at rising to the occasion and handling extreme pressure when it mattered most.
Though he dominated the Chase from 2007-09, he won his first and his latest titles by coming from behind.
This year’s performance was arguably the greatest of his career, rallying from a 15-point deficit in the final race of the season. While contenders Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick choked, Johnson did not, capturing the title with a sterling runnerup finish to become the first driver in Chase history and just the third since 1972 to win it after trailing going into the final race.
Critics argue that Johnson continues to win because he has the best team, the best crew chief and the best car. So did Petty, and so did Earnhardt.
They argue that Johnson would not have won five championships under the old points system. Maybe. But Petty might not have won seven had he raced against better competition, or if Pearson had run the full schedule.
And Earnhardt might not have won seven had Tim Richmond not died, or if Darrell Waltrip hadn’t left Junior Johnson.
You can’t change history, and you can’t go on what-ifs.
Petty had to contend with four great drivers during his championship years – Pearson, Yarborough, Allison and Waltrip.
Unlike Petty and Earnhardt, Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team have had to battle other huge, well-funded, multicar operations that, like Hendrick, have corned the market on sponsors, drivers and top crewmen.
One of Johnson’s most impressive feats is continuously beating Gordon, his own teammate, who is a four-time champion, an 82-race winner and one of the top five drivers of all-time.
It was Gordon who stopped Earnhardt’s dominance and ushered in a new era. In just a few short years, he quickly became one of the greatest and most dominant drivers in the sport’s history.
But just as quickly, Johnson surpassed him and made him an afterthought at Hendrick Motorsports.
That’s at least as impressive as Petty consistently beating Pearson, Yarborough and Allison.
It’s only a matter of time before Johnson has all the numbers to match Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon and the rest of the all-time greats.
Only 35, he will win seven championships to tie Petty and Earnhardt, quite possibly in the next two years. The real Chase is for eight.
If you don’t concede that he is the greatest ever, you will soon. His seventh title in the sport’s most competitive era will cement that status.
I say he’s already there.
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