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Best NASCAR Driver Of The Modern Era? Building A Case, Brick By Brick(yard)

Best NASCAR Driver Of The Modern Era? Building A Case, Brick By Brick(yard)

They say he’s too politically correct. They say his team has more money and, therefore, better equipment than anyone else inside the 43-car field. They say his crew chief is a cheater, someone who should have been suspended from NASCAR as recently as this February’s Daytona 500. Heck, this man’s mere presence behind the wheel is blamed for the self-destruction of stock car racing’s popularity.

But as Sunday wrapped up, as a group of grown men in Lowe’s firesuits were getting busy kissing bricks on pillows (we’ll skip that for now), it was hard for the critics to argue this point: Jimmie Johnson has prepped a resume that will make him the best driver of NASCAR’s modern era. After putting up the latest bullet point, a fourth Brickyard 400 victory in his last seven starts at Indianapolis, even rivals could do nothing but stand up in awe.

A strong case can be made that Jimmie Johnson is the greatest driver of NASCAR’s modern era.

“It didn’t really matter if you were in front of him or not,” said Greg Biffle, who wound up third during the Cup race. “He was going to pass you in about four or five laps anyway.”

“I don’t know how you can go around this place that fast,” added Kyle Busch, who came home second – as in, Johnson’s supposedly _close competition._ “You talk about guys being in their own zip code – he [Jimmie Johnson] was in his own country today.”

The stats back that up: a race-high 99 laps led, but perhaps the most important number Johnson came up with Sunday was four. That victory number at Indy not only ties him with Jeff Gordon for the most all-time in a stock car, it puts him in the same stratosphere with names like Rick Mears, Michael Schumacher, Al Unser and A.J. Foyt, tied for the most victories _ever_ in _any car_ at America’s most historic speedway. With three wins overall in 2012, Johnson now sits fourth in points, trailing shopmate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and is being labeled by many as the odds-on favorite for this Fall’s season championship. Indeed, if not for three wrecks at the restrictor plate roulette tables of Daytona and Talladega, J.J. and his merry men would be leading the Sprint Cup points race in another time zone.

So what if he triumphs at Homestead once again? That would give Johnson six titles in the last seven seasons, more than any other man besides Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr., and a record for championships within a six-year span. Certainly, some will argue the Chase has given Johnson an edge; without it, teammate Gordon would be getting busy chasing Earnhardt for that magic number seven. But you have to work within the system you’re given; you can’t fault Johnson for learning how to master this format and driving better within those ten races than everybody else. Did they take away this year’s Stanley Cup from the Kings, NHL champions, because they barely scraped into the playoffs as the eighth seed? Or how about the Green Bay Packers? They barely scraped in as a “wild card” before rallying to win the Super Bowl a few years back. The bottom line is successful athletes excel within the confines of any system they’re given; Johnson, with a runner-up points finish even before the Chase began in 2004 has done just that.

Once you pair those titles with Johnson’s victory total (58), the numbers get even more impressive. The wins are certain to keep increasing this season and have left him eighth on the all-time list, trailing only Petty, David Pearson, Gordon, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, and Earnhardt. Johnson has done all that in just 383 Cup Series starts; only Gordon (68) and Waltrip (68) won at a faster clip since the sport’s modern era began in 1972. In both those cases, it looked like passing Pearson’s 105 wins for second all-time was but a mere formality; JG and DW looked poised to even rise as high as 140. But outside circumstances destroyed their chances, Gordon losing crew chief Ray Evernham in 1999 and Waltrip’s 1990 injuries, combined with a decision to start his own team, sealed their fates – slowing a once-thriving checkered flag collection to a screeching halt.

In Johnson’s case, any roadblocks are hard to see developing with driver, sponsor and crew chief signed to stay together for the next three seasons. Together, they’ve proven to be an unstoppable combination, winning an average of five-and-a-half times per _season_ over the past decade while accumulating more points than anyone else in that span. If they just hang to the average, that would give Johnson more victories than Earnhardt by the end of 2015, just turning 40 and with upwards of a decade of racing still left in him. Funding, not just from the richest car owner and the dedicated backer, Lowe’s, also comes in the form of being paired with NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. Earnhardt brings in $40 million in additional sponsorship on that No. 88 car, money that with Hendrick’s teamwork system makes the 48/88 shop the best-funded of any out there. And while fans have always been lukewarm on Johnson, television companies and Fortune 500 CEOs still go gaga like 16-year-olds trying to ask their first girlfriend out to the prom. At the halfway point of 2012, Johnson was mentioned more than any other driver on TV and had generated $45.3 million in exposure for 43 different companies. On-air for 13 hours, 10 minutes during race telecasts, no one else was even remotely close (second-place Tony Stewart, the defending Sprint Cup champion no less clocked in at 11 hours, 35 minutes). Need I say more? Like the height of Hurricane Season, conditions for first-place finishes and championship trophies will always be favorable for development at the No. 48 team.

But it’s not just the quantity; it’s the _quality_ of those trophies that help Johnson rise above the fray. Earnhardt, for as great as he was, struggled to win NASCAR’s biggest race, only coming through with a Daytona 500 victory in his 20th attempt. Johnson has 11 Daytona starts, but has already won the 500, pairing that with four Indy trophies to Earnhardt’s singular effort. The two have the same number of victories at Martinsville (six) while Johnson has more trophies from Charlotte, Dover, and Phoenix among other places. Even at Darlington, the famed Lady In Black, where Earnhardt was at his best, Johnson has a higher winning percentage (three in 14 starts) than Earnhardt’s 9-in-44 career clip.

So where does that leave us? Johnson, despite making all the right lists and Tiger Woods-like money at times, hasn’t been the savior of a sinking ship. Indeed, the sport’s decline in popularity times perfectly with Johnson’s first title, regardless of whether the man is responsible for any of the sport’s modern mess. You can’t necessarily blame him for that; but Earnhardt, like Gordon, was responsible for _putting_ butts in the seats on any given Sunday, as fans were chomping at the bit to see the best. Johnson, whether it be the humility, Chad Knaus’ brushes with NASCAR officials, the stigma of driving for Rick Hendrick or a combination of it all has not inspired that type of loyalty. What do you do as a business – and sports is a business, like it or not – when the best man on your driving roster isn’t the charismatic personality you need? What do you do when the future looks like Johnson, Johnson, and more Johnson with the only challenge coming from those supported within his own organization’s wide umbrella (Earnhardt or Hendrick-assisted Tony Stewart)?

“I feel the Chase should start right now,” he said jokingly after Sunday. “I believe I’m stronger today than I’ve ever been in my career.”

He’s right. The numbers don’t lie, and they’re pointing to Johnson on the verge of establishing himself as the best of this generation. The man’s not going anywhere, anytime soon, a blessing for those who believe in him… and a reality that NASCAR must face, in stride with the consequences as they strive for fresh ideas to turn around the sport.

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