By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
This past weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson busted down the door to yet another career milestone — 76-career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins.
That number is of course relevant in the world of NASCAR, because it now ties Johnson with the late Dale Earnhardt for seventh on the all-time win list. As you would expect, this win immediately spawned the question, is Johnson a better driver than Earnhardt was?
Johnson fans will say yes, obviously. While Earnhardt fans will say no, just as obvious. Honestly both fan bases have honest-to-God reasons to back up their thoughts. In any opinion-based argument, nobody is ever truly right, that’s why it’s an opinionated debate. I will do my best to weigh in on where Johnson ranks currently with the all-time greats.
In my mind, if there was a Mount Rushmore for NASCAR drivers it would include the faces of Richard Petty, Earnhardt, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon and construction would be finishing up on the bust of Johnson. That would put Johnson inside the top-five drivers in NASCAR history, at least in my head.
The reasoning is simple. It has taken Johnson 162 less races to reach 76 victories than it did Earnhardt. When broke down in terms of today’s 36-race-per-year schedule, Johnson is four and a half years ahead of Earnhardt’s win pace, which was impressive in his day. That’s just crazy to imagine.
Johnson also has more championships (six) than his mentor and former teammate, Gordon (four). And since Johnson came onto the scene, Gordon never added another cup to his mantle.
The only people in NASCAR history with more season championships than Johnson are Earnhardt and Petty, who each have seven. But the scary thing is that Johnson’s career isn’t over. And at 40 years old he doesn’t even show signs of slowing down. Johnson is as physically fit as he’s ever been, and he’s still winning races and contending for championships year-in and year-out.
Johnson is also one of the most clutch drivers in NASCAR history. He always comes through on the biggest stages of NASCAR. He has won the Daytona 500 twice (2006, 2013), the Brickyard 400 four times (2006, 2008, 2009 and 2012) the Coca-Cola 600 four times (2003, 2004, 2005 and 2014) and the Southern 500 twice (2004 and 2012).
Even with how bright the past 15 years have been for Johnson, the future still looks just as bright. He has an owner (Rick Hendrick) and sponsor (Lowe’s) who believe in him, and he has one of the brightest crew chiefs in the history of the sport (Chad Knaus) turning the wrenches for his No. 48 Chevrolet SS.
This potent combination of driver, owner, crew chief and sponsor combined for five-consecutive championships between 2006 and 2010, and overall Johnson has failed to finish inside the top-10 of the year end standings just once (when he finished 11th in 2014).
As it stands, Johnson is without a doubt one of the five greatest drivers to ever strap on a helmet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Depending on what happens over the next few years, Johnson can only further cement his place in history. With each passing win, and championship bid, Johnson makes the argument harder and harder for anyone else to claim that their favorite driver was the greatest of all-time.
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