Jimmie Johnson is not the most popular stock-car driver. That title remains property of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Fans never knew exactly what to make of a California-born speed merchant whose personality was neither abrasive nor outlandish.
Johnson falls into that Jeff-Gordon-likable-outsider mold. At least to southerners.
With 80 Monster Energy Cup wins in the bank, he’ll never come close to Richard Petty’s career 200. David Pearson’s 105 is a stretch. Don’t bet against him, though, when it comes to the next three in front of him on the all-time list (Gordon, 93; Darrell Waltrip, 84; Cale Yarborough, 83).
The two drivers with whom Johnson shares the distinction of most series championships – Petty and the original Dale Earnhardt – forever will be considered more glorious figures in racing than Johnson. Even if he goes on to win an eighth title, and then a ninth. This is all about perception, not data.
Against that backdrop, let us share the sentiments of a current generation driver who actually shares the track with Johnson, Jamie McMurray:
“Jimmie is the greatest NASCAR driver of all time. Even though he was teammates with Jeff Gordon, to me he surpassed Jeff Gordon even as they were teammates. Obviously now Jeff is retired, and Jimmie’s gone on to win another championship. It’s unbelievable. Maybe it seems a bigger deal to me because I am living it with him and racing with him every weekend; somewhat like maybe the golfers that are with Tiger Woods as they competed against him. I never raced against Dale Sr. or Richard Petty or any of those guys. I wasn’t around for those times. But I have been for Jimmie’s.”
Johnson’s times have been spectacular. His run of five consecutive championships between 2006-10 prompted talk that his dominance was bad for the sport. Then he picked off a couple more even as he aged and championship formats changed, just to prove that he could keep up with the times as well as keeping up with the traffic. He is a winner of prodigious proportions.
Racing in Atlanta on Sunday as the defending Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 champion, Johnson, 41, said he is nowhere near considering retirement and that more championships are well within his reach. He seems intent upon making the arguments against him as the best driver of all more and more difficult to mount.
No, Johnson is not the most popular. He is far from the most iconic. But the best ever? If championships are an accurate measure – and there is no more accurate barometer – then he deserves serious consideration.
So, at the very least, rather than waiting until Johnson’s last race, why not fully appreciate him now while he is still vital on the track? Taking him for granted is too easy to do.
You’d hardly know it by his placid manner, but the guy is a towering figure. Not just in his sport. But in all of sports.