It’s human nature to compare things to each other. In NASCAR, that means comparing drivers to one another: Richard Petty vs. Dale Earnhardt vs. Jimmie Johnson and just about everyone in between.
But it’s not as simple as claiming superiority based on the numbers.
If NASCAR using different championship point systems throughout its history didn’t make it hard enough to make comparisons, many other factors have to be considered. The cars aren’t the same. The rules aren’t the same. The tracks aren’t the same.
So what can be compared?
Take Petty, Earnhardt and Johnson. All three drivers hold a record seven NASCAR Cup Series titles, so they’re naturally the subjects of a good debate.
Along with that debate come the inevitable arguments. All of Johnson’s titles were playoff titles, so they’re not worth as much. Some of Petty’s titles came in an era where drivers could cherry-pick races, so they have less value too. Oh, and Earnhardt won his in an era where the competition wasn’t as great as it was in other eras, when more cars were capable of winning…there are plenty of ways to say one wasn’t as good as the others.
Except none of those are really valid. You can compare races and even entire seasons, but comparing drivers isn’t so easy.
Let’s take away the 21 cumulative titles, the years leading up to them, and the competition.
All three drivers were rookies once.
How can those rookie seasons, snapshots in time, be compared, if at all? We’ll go deeper into their seventh championship seasons later, but rookie seasons are in many ways simpler to dissect because they kind of stand alone. There’s nothing to compare them against yet; and most drivers improve later, so that’s all excess baggage.
Petty’s rookie season was 1959. He was 21 when the season started, the youngest of the three. Petty ran 21 of the 44 Grand National races slated that year and finished 15th in the final standings.
Earnhardt ran the full schedule for the first time in 1979 (all three drivers had a handful of races at the Cup level before what the sport considered their rookie seasons) at the age of 28, the oldest in the group here. He finished that season seventh in points, running 27 of 31 races.
Johnson made his full-time Cup debut in 2002 at 26, finishing fifth in points and running the entire 36-race slate.
Not much of a complete picture there. Johnson’s points finish is the best of the lot, but neither of the others ran the entire schedule, or as close to it as drivers got in Petty’s case, when not everyone ran the entire slate.
Well, what about Rookie of the Year awards, if points finish isn’t quite accurate?
Petty won the award in ’59 by a vote of NASCAR officials. Earnhardt won it in ’79, but under an entirely different (and more objective) tally system. Johnson…didn’t win it (Ryan Newman did) under the same system. So maybe Johnson’s season wasn’t as good as the others after all?
None of this is a really clear picture of three different seasons, all decades apart.
Let’s pick those seasons apart a bit more.
Richard Petty, 1959
Top fives: 6
Top 10s: 9
Average finish: 15.4
Average start: 11
Petty didn’t win in his rookie season, but he had solid runs at a variety of tracks. The Grand National Series was still racing at both dirt and asphalt tracks, and Petty’s experience in ’59 was limited to ovals that ranged from half-mile dirt bullrings to the massive Daytona International Speedway. Petty would go on to win at most of them in his career.
The eye-popping number here is the 11 DNFs Petty amassed. Most were due to mechanical failures, with just three coming from crashes. Mechanical failures were more common when teams had more room to work on their cars. They’d take risks to be faster, sometimes sacrificing durability. Plus, at the time, Richard Petty was not Petty Enterprises’ top dog; that honor went to his father, Lee.
Take away those mechanical issues for a minute, though. In the 10 races Petty did finish, he finished in the top 10 in all but one. That paints a different picture of the youngster’s ability.
His average finish was decent considering those issues — he still finished 15th in points and that average would be good enough for a playoff spot these days.
Overall, Petty’s first year was certainly decent, but didn’t let on what was coming from the future King.
Dale Earnhardt, 1979
Top fives: 11
Top 10s: 17
Average finish: 10.7
Average start: 7.7
Wins for rookie drivers are somewhat of a rarity, though it’s more common now than in the past. Earnhardt’s victory in the spring race at Bristol was his only trip to victory lane that year, but his 11 top fives was certainly a strong start. He finished in the top five 63% of the time that year, the best among all three drivers here.
If consistency is the hallmark of a champion, than that number is telling for Earnhardt, as is his average finish just outside the top 10. Just two Cup drivers had a better average in 2021, which suggests that wins and top finishes alone aren’t the best indicator of a season, as we saw with Petty as well after looking at his average when he actually finished.
If we’re looking at these rookie seasons as an indicator of what was to come, then Earnhardt’s four DNFs, all due to crashes, certainly hint at his trademark aggressive style that earned him the Intimidator moniker.
Jimmie Johnson, 2002
Top fives: 6
Top 10s: 21
Average finish: 13.5
Average start: 14.3
What’s left out of the numbers here is that Johnson was the only rookie in NASCAR history (until Austin Cindric for the first two races of 2022) to lead the point standings, though he eventually finished fifth. His three wins stand out as well, tying the mark set by Tony Stewart in 1999. His numbers indicate a top-five season almost any year, so it’s no surprise that he points finish was that strong.
Johnson was the weakest qualifier in the group despite having the most poles; his average start of just under 14th means he had to pass a lot of cars to get those good finishes.
Johnson also had the fewest DNFs in the most races in this group, and all of his failures to finish were mechanical in nature. As the numbers there suggest, Johnson’s on-track persona was closer to Petty’s than to Earnhardt’s—both were aggressive enough to win but never had the reputation Earnhardt did for crossing lines.
On paper, at least, Johnson’s rookie campaign is the most indicative of his career accomplishments because of his wins and points finish. Losing Rookie of the Year to Ryan Newman doesn’t take away from anything here.
The big takeaway here, though, is that while you can put certain aspects of different seasons side-by-side and compare them, such as wins and points standings, there is a much bigger picture to consider. Petty’s rookie season looks terrible until you take the mechanical failures (which may or may not have been the driver’s fault) out of the equation, and then the numbers are much more impressive. But that’s also less than accurate as if those failures were due to driver error, they paint a picture of…well, a rookie who was a mere mortal. Which is, of course, exactly what he was.
But you can look at Johnson’s season as one of the best ever by a first-year driver (which is was), but also at Earnhardt’s knowing that he was actually more consistently in the top 10 than Johnson. You can look at the DNFs and their reasons and see the “checkers or wreckers” driver that a young Earnhardt was, and while he remained aggressive, he did learn not to be his own worst enemy.
From none of this can you definitively say one driver was “better” than the other two. The best you can do is look at the numbers in context: the context of their careers, their accomplishments, and the times.
What you have is three of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport and three first seasons that tell three different stories. In the context of what those drivers achieved, they’re perhaps an indicator of things to come. In some ways, they’re forever linked and will always draw comparisons. Just take them with a grain of salt. Leave the “ifs” and “should haves” and “buts” be. By all means, draw conclusions from the numbers, but make sure you know what’s behind them too.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.