Jimmie Johnson joined the pantheon of the great stock car drivers by winning his seventh Sprint Cup. But there's still the question of where he stands compared to the other greats.
Perhaps the more appropriate question concerns a possible eighth championship. If Johnson, still in his prime at age 41, were to break a tie for the most titles with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, would that make him the best of them all?
The scope of the discussion should also include Junior Johnson -- who entered the NASCAR Hall of Fame with Petty and Earnhardt as a member of the inaugural class -- and David Pearson, whose 105 career victories are second only to Petty's 200.
Junior Johnson was dominant in the 1950s and early 1960s when it came to victories but also chose an approach focused on winning or blowing up. He never competed for a full season, virtually thumbing his nose at the points championship. Pearson, who won the championship three of the four years he ran a full schedule, eventually moved to a selected schedule of speedway races with the Wood Brothers.
For my money, Pearson was the best pure driver on the track. He was smooth, conserved his equipment and raced hard when it counted. In an era of danger from fire or crashes in relatively simple tube-frame cars, he never once went to a hospital after a race. Of these five greats, Pearson leads them all in winning percentage (18.2), average start (6.2) and average finish (11.0).
After 15 seasons, Jimmie Johnson has a winning percentage (14.7) that is ahead of only Earnhardt, an average finish (12.1) that is ahead of only Junior Johnson and an average start (11.1) that is only ahead of Earnhardt and trails considerably to Pearson's amazing 6.2 average. On statistics alone, Jimmie Johnson is not the best pure driver.
Given his number of starts, Petty deserves a nod as the best when it comes to winning. In 1,185 starts, Petty had a very stout winning percentage of 16.8, second only to that of Pearson.
There are lies, damned lies and then there are statistics, according to Mark Twain and the purists, who prefer looking at eras instead statistics. The era approach can be an easy out for avoiding a final decision, often a route chosen by pundits who once participated in the sport. But it is possible to compare eras just like statistics.
The best case against statistics alone is Earnhardt, who is ahead of only Junior Johnson when it comes to career victories (he had 76) and trails badly when it comes to winning percentage (11.2). But Earnhardt's impact on the sport was huge. His divide-and-conquer style when it came to fan appreciation was unlike that of Petty, who always had a rival, particularly Pearson, but rarely fanned the flames like Earnhardt.
Earnhardt introduced a whole new era of speedway racing that included close quarters and inevitable contact. It was a close-quarter style that demanded utmost skill and is still prevalent among the current generation -- although drivers are far more careful than Earnhardt to avoid contact. The fact Earnhardt died while defending his racing creed, sadly, elevates his status considerably.
If the humble, smiling "King" Richard brought NASCAR out of the backwoods -- the same backwoods where Junior Johnson became Tom Wolfe's "Last American Hero" -- it was Earnhardt who took the sport to major league status and the six-year $2.4 billion TV contract that began the year he died in 2001.
We are most certainly currently watching the Jimmie Johnson era. If Johnson is to be considered the greatest in terms of eras and not just the statistics that now include seven championships, his status has to be reckoned according to the impact he's had during his era.
The Earnhardt years have been tough to follow, witness Johnson's perennial also-ran status in the Most Popular Driver voting won each year by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is still working on his first championship. (His father, of course, routinely lost this vote to Bill Elliott.) Unlike his teammate Jeff Gordon, who beat Earnhardt to the title three times, Johnson did not have the opportunity to beat The Intimidator to the championship, which might have helped him in the eyes of fans.
What made the Earnhardt era so great were the T-shirts that read: "Anybody But Earnhardt." Fans came in droves to either see him win or to see another driver beat him. By that criteria, Johnson has achieved a certain measure of success. He has a solid fan following and most of the rest in the grandstands don't enjoy seeing him win. With a driving style far more reminiscent of Pearson than any other driver, Johnson doesn't fan flames or excite passion due to his smoothness -- on and off the track. Maybe he's just too smooth.
I would argue that watching Jimmie Johnson race is often worth the price of admission. You'll always see him make his trademark move. There's not any one thing he does, but he will size up and pass a driver quicker than anybody in the business without putting himself at risk (see Kyle Busch) and generally not the other driver. The fact Johnson won his seventh title at the Homestead-Miami Speedway after starting last in the field was not a surprise -- although there was certainly some luck to the surprise ending.
Johnson has won all his titles in the Chase era, which is the most decisive element of his reign and the one point of comparison many fans hold against him. But the other key element has been the TV money. The billions have been a rising tide that has produced the most competitive fields in NASCAR history. Throughout the first five decades of NASCAR, generally there were only six or seven other drivers who could be counted on to be competitive each weekend. Currently, there are 13 alone from the teams of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing.
The Chase format calls for drivers and teams to perform at their best when the chips are on the line. Nobody remembers the winning percentage of the NFL's Super Bowl winners, rather that they won in the playoffs. Johnson has mastered that approach in an era where only Tony Stewart among his contemporaries has been able to win the Chase more than once.
One can argue that the Chase is more about luck than skill and less about long run consistency. But Johnson's record suggests otherwise. Given the current level of competition, if he wins an eighth title it would be difficult not to consider Johnson, who narrowly missed winning in the first year of the Chase, the finest driver of them all, whatever his popularity or impact on the sport.
Then again, during the era of Junior Johnson, Petty and Pearson, winning the biggest races that paid the most money was the focus and the championship an afterthought before sponsorship money from the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company made the title far more lucrative.
If nothing else, Jimmie Johnson is no doubt the greatest of his generation when the most money and prestige are on the line, which keeps him in the running for the greatest of all time with more than a few seasons remaining in his career.