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Johnson leaves legends in the rearview mirror

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Take a good look at Jimmie Johnson when he formally accepts the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship Friday night in the annual Awards Banquet in Las Vegas.

You'll be looking at the greatest driver in NASCAR history.

No driver in NASCAR's 62-year history has accomplished what Johnson has since coming into the Cup Series and I believe no one will ever eclipse his mark of winning five straight championships.

Jimmie Johnson signs autographs for fans at the Champions Week in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)  
Jimmie Johnson signs autographs for fans at the Champions Week in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)  
The howls from some long-time fans are surely coming after reading my assessment of Johnson's place in NASCAR history. Some will argue that both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who each racked up seven titles in their storied careers, are by far superior to Johnson.

However they'd be wrong.

Johnson's accomplishments have come in what is without a doubt the toughest competitive environment in the sport's history. He has had to battle with at least 20 drivers capable of winning every week in an era that has continually set records for lead changes, race leaders and race winners.

And he's gone on his title run under the Chase for the Sprint Cup format, by far a much more difficult system than the previous model of simply adding up points earned over the course of the 36-race season.

Compare what Johnson has done to the records of Petty and Earnhardt, who both had stellar careers and will always be recognized as two of the NASCAR's most treasured legends.

When Petty was stockpiling wins on his way to a will-never-be-broken mark of 200 career victories, many of those checkered flags were earned in 100-mile or 200-lap events as small short tracks around the Southeast that were part of the Cup schedule back in the day. In some of the races the field of starters didn't make 20 and Petty, in much superior equipment, trounced the underfunded and in some cases inferior competition.

In terms of his championships, in most years there were no more than five or six drivers in contention for the title each season. Most teams could not field cars for the entire schedule, which in some years reached nearly 60 races.

Not until the modern era of NASCAR began in 1972 was the schedule reduced to 32 races and even then the number of legitimate championship contenders was limited.

While Earnhardt's seven-title run came well into the modern era, he too benefitted from a lot less competition than is currently part of the Sprint Cup Series world.

Earnhardt had the uncanny knack of building nearly insurmountable point leads in the first half of the season that he was able to put things on cruise control in the latter half of the campaign, many times clinching the title well before the final checkered flag of the season had waved.

Compare that to the pressure-packed environment of the Chase, where even the biggest advantage in the point standings is wiped out after 26 races and the 12 drivers eligible for the title are bunched together in a re-set.

Not only has Johnson been superior in the 10-race playoff since 2006, he's been nearly unbeatable.

Of his 53 career Sprint Cup wins, Johnson has scored 19 in the Chase with 13 of those coming in his five-peat title run.

And by the way championship number five came in come-from-behind fashion at the final race of the season, something only Petty and the late Alan Kulwicki have been able to do.

The comparison between Johnson with Petty and Earnhardt really needs only one set of statistics to be proven; it took Petty 655 starts to reach his fifth championship. It took Earnhardt 390. Johnson grabbed number five after only 367 starts.

Need more numbers to be convinced? Johnson's 53 wins ranks him 10th on the all-time Sprint Cup list. He's been victorious in 16 percent of his career starts, the sixth best percentage in series history. Plus there's that small fact about Johnson being only the third driver to win the coveted title five or more times.

Not surprisingly Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus believes his driver is the best that NASCAR's ever seen and that this year's record-setting fifth straight title should be more than enough to persuade even the most ardent detractors.

"I think it's definitely going to give Jimmie some of the praise that he needs for the type of driver that he is, a fantastic driver, and really has not gotten the praise that he deserves," Knaus said after Johnson clinched this year's crown at the Homestead season finale.

Knaus, a student of the sport, understands that the very nature of calling Johnson the greatest to ever compete in NASCAR upsets a great many who have followed the sport and the exploits of some of the most storied names in stock car racing.

But he won't back down on his assessment.

"No disrespect to any of our elders or whatever you want to call them, the guys that raced back in the day, the Earnhardts, the Waltrips, the Pearsons, guys like that," Knaus said. "You hear a lot about the tenacity of those drivers and how aggressive they were and how they could do things with the race car that nobody else could do.

"I think if you really sat back and looked at what this guy can do with a race car, you would be pretty impressed."

There's not much more Johnson has to do to impress me and that includes winning at least two more championships to tie Petty and Earnhardt at seven.

In fact I think it would be foolish to think he'll stop there.

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