The checkered flag was still waving last weekend at Homestead Miami when the talk immediately began about Jimmie Johnson’s place in NASCAR history. He had just captured his sixth Sprint Cup title, a feat that left him only one behind the two drivers who hold the series record, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Johnson, Petty and Earnhardt each has driven during different eras of the sport, each dominating those spans. Petty put up an unbelievable total of 200 career wins to go with his seven titles, and he did it while racing against some of the biggest names in the history of the sport — David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough.
During Petty’s run in the 1960’s and 1970’s, he had seasons with more than 50 races, some being contested on dirt as well as on asphalt. Very few drivers ran the entire schedule during that period but Petty showed just how dominating he was by winning 92 of 248 races between 1967 and 1971. He also was able to put together a stretch of 37 wins in 117 races at the beginning of what is known as the modern era of the sport, between 1972-75.
When Earnhardt Sr. was dominating NASCAR in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Petty was at the point in his career where he was just filling out the field each week, meaning that he and Earnhardt never really were rivals on the track. Earnhardt did have to go up against Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace and Bill Elliott, all of whom won at least one series title.
Earnhardt finished with 76 wins to go along with his seven titles and was able to dominate the sport later in his career between the ages of 35-39 when he won 33 of 145 races with eleven of those coming during the 29-race schedule of 1987. His death in a last lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500 career cut short a career that was still capable of winning races and competing for another title.
When comparing the careers of the three drivers, the one stat that just really jumps off the page is that Johnson was the quickest of the three to six titles at age 38. He also has shown his dominance during his era by winning 30 more races than any other driver during the last 11 years as he has posted 66 wins so far in his career.
The debate about which of these three drivers is the greatest includes more than just a look at the numbers that they have in the record books. Each of the driver’s own eras has presented its own unique set of variables that must be included in any talk about which one should be considered the best of all time.
Petty no doubt benefitted by racing during the time that NASCAR’s rulebook was much thinner than it is today. Earnhardt’s era saw an increase in the sanctioning body’s hands-on approach to what crew chiefs were doing to their cars. Johnson has been forced to win his titles using three generations of racecars along with a rulebook known to change weekly.
Petty was a single-car team during his remarkable run as was Earnhardt for much of his stellar career. This is an area where Johnson has had an advantage, as his entire career has been with the multi-car operation of Hendrick Motorsports. He has benefitted from having former champions Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte as teammates among others.
Eventually it will all come down to the final numbers posted, but Johnson, who is in his prime, has to be thinking of eight or nine titles instead of just a record-tying seventh.
Odds makers in Las Vegas have already made him the favorite to win it all again next season. Would you bet against him?