As the NASCAR Sprint Cup heads into the final race of the season, Jeff Gordon, Richard Petty and Rick Hendrick discuss with Lee Spencer whether Jimmie Johnson can outperform the remaining Championship 4 of Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards to take a famous 7th Cup win at Homestead Miami – a feat which would put him level with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Will a seventh NASCAR championship bring Jimmie Johnson the respect he deserves?
Despite six titles, 79 wins, 35 poles, 217 top-5s and 329 top-10s, Johnson hasn’t earned the recognition accorded to other drivers with similar accomplishments.
And there’s really no explanation why.
All things being equal, Johnson even outshone his teammate – four-time champion Jeff Gordon – almost from the moment he was hired to drive for Hendrick Motorsports. Early on, Gordon was Johnson’s greatest advocate. But once Johnson joined the fold, Gordon never won another Cup title.
“The other drivers that I’ve competed against, it was always, ‘Well, how good is their car? How good is their team?’’ Gordon said. “And you always had that question mark. With Jimmie, I know. We are driving similar equipment. I get to see what that team does every year and what Jimmie’s talents are.
“Because of that, I think he is the best that I’ve ever raced against, and possibly the best that there has ever been. Even days where I felt like I had a car that could compete with him, he did extraordinary things to get more out of it.”
Johnson, 41, ranks seventh on NASCAR’s all-time win list. He has the third most championships and reached No. 6 faster than either Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt. He’s also the only driver in the history of NASCAR to win five consecutive Cup championships.
Of course, Johnson achieved that milestone after NASCAR introduced the Chase in 2004 – and he’s qualified for every playoff since. But Johnson’s titles were won under the previous format, where a driver had to accumulate enough points in the first 26 races to be among the top 10, the top 12 or the top 13 (as was the case in 2013, when the No. 48 team won its last title).
In most years, the Chad Knaus-led team would win early, then accumulate enough points to ensure a Chase berth. Once comfortably secure in the standings, the team used the summer months as a test session to prepare for the final 10 playoff races.
For five seasons, the formula worked. That was until other organizations started adopting the strategy as well. In 2011, Tony Stewart became the first and only driver to win championships under three different point systems. The following year, Brad Keselowski enjoyed his breakthrough title. Johnson battled back, in 2013, to claim his sixth championship.
In 2014, NASCAR introduced the current Chase structure, which featured elimination rounds. Johnson made in to the Round of 12 during the first season, but didn’t make the first cut in 2015. Had NASCAR finally ‘Jimmie-proofed’ the championship?
“This deal is so hard, this new program,” said Johnson’s team owner, Rick Hendrick. “You see guys like Martin Truex that run so good, break an engine at Talladega. It’s a heartbreaker. When you get into the playoffs in baseball, the ball doesn’t go flat. You don’t get a bat that comes apart. There’s a lot of things out of your control, that you just can’t do anything about.”
It’s difficult to compare titles won in different eras. When Petty accumulated 200 victories and seven titles, the roster of competitive teams was relatively small. Johnson’s peak has come at a time when fields are substantially deeper and stronger.
“You look at it like this – I came along at the right time for me; Dale [Earnhardt] came along at the right time for him,” Petty said. “Jimmie and Chad are doing their deal at the right time for them.
“You have to think about the different ways we have done it. Dale and I, we had the whole season. Now, they have this sprint to the finish and one race. Jimmie has never been in this situation, so you don’t know what is going to happen. But, what I’m really sayin’ is, you really can’t compare it all. It’s not apples to apples. Maybe it’s apples to bananas, or something.
“It’s great for the sport though. Jimmie has done great things. He’s won championships consecutively, and has come back and won again. Now, he’s right in position to win it again. It’s been amazing to see that. Sunday will be a good race. It’s really all on the line in one race.”
In five of Johnson’s six championships, he’s entered the season finale with the points lead. Only in 2010 – when Denny Hamlin led the standings after Phoenix – was the No. 48 team on offense when they took the green flag at Homestead-Miami. This time, Johnson and his three opponents, defending champion Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards start on equal footing on Sunday.
“It’s going to be different,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing to protect. We’re all in a tie. It’s just go out there and lay down your best work. I think that would be helpful from a stress management standpoint, thinking what could possibly happen.
“Love to do it. Honestly, just thrilled to have a shot at it. That’s all you can hope for, is just to have a shot at it.”
Since Johnson was the first driver to transfer into the Championship 4 Round, he’s had the most time to prepare. And although he’s never won at Homestead – he’s never had to – one-third of his career Cup wins have come at 1.5-mile tracks.
“I think he’s got that stride,” Hendrick added. “He just doesn’t give it up. He knows he’s got a tremendous feel. He did at Charlotte.
“If we’ve got to race for the win at a track like that, then I’d put my money on him. “
“He is a pretty calm, cool guy. But, boy, when you put that helmet on him and you get him in the race car, he just becomes another person and takes it to another level,” Gordon said. “He doesn’t have to win the seventh to prove that to me, but I also know that stats and numbers mean a lot out there in the world of comparisons.
“I think that would be great for him, to have that to show the rest of the world that he is one of the best, if not THE best.”
And if Johnson hoists the Sprint Cup on Sunday night, not only will he be the greatest driver of this generation, arguably, he could be the greatest of all time.