And just like that … BOOM, confetti!
It wasn’t expected, yet it wasn’t surprising to see Jimmie Johnson in Victory Lane at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday. Six-Time was the closer that day, beating original namesake Kevin Harvick by using pit strategy to take the lead late and surviving a last-lap dash to the victory.
The win was number 76 for Johnson, tying him with Dale Earnhardt for seventh on the all-time list. Immediately fans across the internet returned to the debate: Will history remember Johnson or Earnhardt as the better driver? It’s a legitimate question – even the most ardent Earnhardt supporter and Johnson fanatic will agree. What they don’t agree on, however, is just who the better driver is.
Dale Earnhardt All the Way
Dale Earnhardt is a legend for much more than his seven titles. His death during the 2001 Daytona 500 perhaps sped up the general consensus of Earnhardt as legendary, but he was well on his way to being remembered as the Richard Petty of the Bill France Jr. era before his death.
Let’s take a look at the amount of time it took him to reach 76 victories, which is why this debate has heated up again. Earnhardt took 670 tries to get to 76, which is 161 more than Johnson. You’d think that would make Johnson the de facto champ in this contest, right? After all, Johnson is only one title behind and has more time to add to his totals. All true, but still not enough to surpass the Intimidator.
You see, Johnson has been in top-flight equipment his entire career, teammate to Jeff Gordon and with Hendrick Motorsports powerplants leading him to victory. Johnson has also had the stability of a single crew chief over the past 15 years. Contrast this to Earnhardt, who drove for multiple teams before eventually settling with Richard Childress Racing for the rest of his career. Earnhardt’s team ran as a single-car operation until 1997 when Mike Skinner joined RCR full-time. Plus he has worked with multiple crew chiefs including Kirk Shelmerdine, Andy Petree and Larry McReynolds – and found success with all of them.
Johnson has also never had to endure a winless season, earning victories in every year since 2002, but Earnhardt suffered through two winless years and also had to contend with the Wonderboy Gordon. Remember that Gordon was the future of the sport up until, you guessed it, Johnson showed up in 2002, and his production went downhill from there.
With Johnson getting older and young guns such as Kyle Busch and Joey Logano each coming into their prime, it would make sense for Johnson to underperform over the next few years. Will he win more races? Sure. Another title? Perhaps. But will passing Earnhardt in the wins column or tying him in the title count mean he is better? Not at all.
Let’s take a look at this infographic that Johnson posted on Instagram earlier this week and see how he compares to Earnhardt. The Intimidator has 72 more top 5s – two whole season’s worth – and 111 more top 10s than Johnson. He has led nearly 8,000 more laps than Johnson. That is dominance.
It’s obvious that both are great racers, but Earnhardt worked his tail off in an era where cars broke frequently and drivers had to muscle their way to victory. Earnhardt never received a Lucky Dog, raced back to the yellow, and sometimes had to get to the front well before the scheduled race distance approached to ensure he wouldn’t lose if a caution ended the race. It was a different NASCAR, a tougher NASCAR … and success in that era speaks much more loudly than success in today’s garage. -Sean Fesko
Jimmie Johnson is the GOAT
Look, I grew up in a Dale Earnhardt family, so this isn’t easy to admit, but when you look at the stats: Jimmie Johnson might actually be better.
With Sunday’s result, Earnhardt and Johnson are tied for victories with 76 wins apiece. However, The Intimidator competed into his 50s before reaching his final total. Johnson, on the other hand? He just turned 40 in September.
In arguably the most volatile period of NASCAR history, Johnson has proven to be the best driver of the era on a yearly basis.
Since Jeff Gordon’s protégé made his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the fall of 2001, the series has seen not one, but two generations of cars, the creation and constant change of the Chase, NASCAR’s version of a playoff, and green-white-checkered finishes, which ultimately became overtime this season.
Through it all, Johnson has continued to find the path to Victory Lane. Even on Sunday, when pit strategy, green-flag runs and overtime all factored into the finale, Johnson found a way to rise above his competitors, despite not having the best car.
Consider this – with Sunday’s win, Johnson continued a now 15-year-old streak that’s seen him win at least one race in every full-time season he’s competed in. In fact, Johnson’s managed at least two victories in every season up until 2016, and has won at least five races in nine seasons.
Yes, NINE. Statistically, Johnson is more likely to reach five wins than he is to go winless.
Dale Earnhardt was one of the most dominant drivers in NASCAR history, but he only managed to reach five victories seven times in his 22-year career. Four times, he only won once, and while it’s often lost in the hype surrounding his 1998 Daytona 500 victory, the seven-time champion went winless in 1997.
The one category where Earnhardt has Johnson covered thus-far is championships. However, it should be noted that Johnson could still have as many as 10 years of running competitively in the series, and the Californian needs only one more title to equal The Intimidator and The King.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Johnson ain’t got nothin’ on Dale Earnhardt! He didn’t have to work his way up earn his ride like Dale did. He didn’t have to deal with the injuries and crew chief changes. The titles aren’t the same with the Chase. He didn’t earn them!
Look, I get where you’re coming from. All of those arguments can be made, as arguments can often be made when comparing athletes from different generations. It’s ultimately a tale of apples vs. black-and-white Goodwrench oranges.
Still, the stats speak for themselves. With two Daytona 500s, four Brickyard 400s, six championships and 70 other victories, Johnson has to be considered in the same category as Dale, Jeff and the other legend of NASCAR’s past.
And when Johnson’s career is all said and done?
He may well have a claim to be considered the best driver of all time. -Aaron Bearden[yop_poll id=”6″]
About the author
Sean returns as a ringer in 2017, contributing once a month because he (gasp!) is living it up in the big city without internet. While he's not consuming race news on the Twitter app and reddit he's writing a ton of short stories and paying the bills by working in marketing.
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