On Sunday, Jimmie Johnson collected his 11th win at Dover International Speedway and 83rd of his 15-plus year career. The 83rd win tied him for sixth on the on the all-time NASCAR Cup wins list with Cale Yarborough. His next win will tie him with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.
He is 10 wins behind Jeff Gordon, 22 behind David Pearson and 117 behind Richard Petty’s 200.
I say he passes Gordon next year, Pearson maybe in a couple of years, but, of course, there will be no catching Petty, who raced in an era when the Grand National Series and Winston Cup Series raced many more races than they do now. Long gone are the days of three races a week at places whose name ended with “Fairgrounds” and many drivers didn’t run the full season the way the Pettys did.
Johnson elicits some strong feelings among NASCAR fans these days.
Some say he’s too polished. Others say he’s a cheater (in all fairness, his crew chief Chad Knaus has been busted more than a few times for skirting the rule book). Related, others credit the Hendrick Motor Sports equipment he gets to tool around on a regular basis. There are fans who say his championships – all seven of them – are a product of The Chase. And, my favorite .. it’s all rigged by NASCAR for him to win.
To most of those, I say poo-poo (I was going to say going to say balderdash, but, really, who says that?). OK, maybe they have done a little work in the margins of the rules, but so did Smokey Yunick (remember the 7/8 Nova?) and he is regarded as a cult hero among old-school NASCAR fans.
And sure, Hendrick gives Johnson great equipment, but the same can be said for Gordon and Petty, whose family team had much more money and many more resources to kick the butts of the shade-tree mechanics and part-time competitors. Pearson’s Wood Brothers teams were powerhouses in their day too and were the only ones who could give the Pettys a run for their money.
As for The Chase, I would say it makes it harder to win one, especially the 2013 and 2015 championships, with the eliminations. The season got compressed into that 10-race run and later a series of three three-race segments and a winner-take-all finale. The margin for error is so much smaller. One bad race and you are toast. Just ask Martin Truex Jr. or Joey Logano, who had great 2016 and 2015 seasons, respectively, but one race with misfortune killed their chances.
The last one there is laughable. Do you thinking if NASCAR was pulling strings to let someone win over the last 15 years it would be Johnson, a guy who had all of zero Busch Series win when Hendrick and Gordon announced he would be driving for them in the Cup Series in 2002? While he did pick up one when between that announcement and the time he went Cup racing, he was a relative unknown guy from California of all places.
If NASCAR was playing loose and fast to let someone win, don’t you think it would be Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Remember, Johnson has 83 wins and seven championships while Earnhardt has 26 wins and zero wins in two more seasons.
None of them hold up. Like it or not, Johnson, and Knaus, for that matter, have earned their places among the pantheon of NASCAR’s greatest of all time (GOAT). While I’ll argue David Pearson is NASCAR’s all-time GOAT, Johnson is nipping at his heels.
For me, the key to Johnson’s success has been the stability of his team at Hendrick. Knaus has been his crew chief from day one. Lowe’s has been his sponsor from day one. There aren’t many drivers or teams that can say that. I also think this is the reason for Petty’s success. Dale Inman was his crew chief for all his championships and STP stuck around with Petty for a loooong time.
I still talk about the times I saw Pearson, Petty and Dale Earnhardt when I was a much younger man. This young generation of fans, as they are, will be talking about the times they saw Jimmie Johnson race 25 years from now.
Andy Cagle writes a weekly NASCAR column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.