Is Jimmie Johnson The Greatest NASCAR Driver Of All-Time?By Nick DeGroot
This article was inspired by Kenny Wallace and his tweet from Monday morning; “No doubt at 38 yrs old that @JimmieJohnson is the 2nd Greatest driver in the History of #NASCAR, ALL stats back it up. #3 is 1st.” That is a very bold statement by Kenny and it unsurprisingly caught the attention of many NASCAR fans that began to argue the topic amongst themselves. Attempting to compare Jimmie to the likes of Petty and Earnhardt is a very difficult task considering that they all raced in such different eras of the sport. This is not the first time that this controversial topic has been brought up but Jimmie’s domination at Martinsville which marked his 8th victory at the short track and the 62nd of his career brought it to the forefront of our minds again.
So, is 5-time better than Richard Petty and even the late, great Dale Earnhardt? Let’s crunch some numbers first and see how the three compare. It took Richard 15 years to win five championships while Earnhardt did it in 13…a feat that took Johnson just 9 years to accomplish in arguably the most competitive era in NASCAR history. Jimmie Johnson has competed in 405 NSCS events coming out victorious in 62 of them giving him a 15.3% winning percentage. In their first 405 races, Petty won 82 events while Dale Sr. won 53. If you are going to base it off of that, then I’d say Richard Petty is #1 but it isn’t so black and white. There are A LOT of factors you have to look at before making an accurate determination on the issue and it would be ignorant to simply base it your stance off of that.
First of all, not to take anything away from The King but back then, Petty Enterprises was heads and shoulders above the rest of the field car wise which is a major factor to why he won so much. The only other teams that could really compete with them on a regular basis were the Wood Brothers and Junior Johnson. Petty was winning races laps ahead of his closest competitor and just dominated the sport for well over a decade. He had easily the best team, one of the best crew chiefs (Dale Inman) and of course, some natural talent when it comes to driving a race car. Once 3x NSCS champion Lee thought Richard was ready; he threw his son into the fastest car in the field which contributed to all the success and the big numbers he put up. It’s a similar story for Johnson who was thrown into Hendrick equipment from the start and teamed up with Chad Knaus who he remains with to this day.
Dale Earnhardt on the other hand is a completely different situation and what I’m about to say explains why I rank Dale #1. The cars he drove at the start of his career were mid-packers at best that rarely, if ever found victory lane. Rod Osterlund ran over 200 races as an owner but only one driver ever gave him victories and his name is Dale Earnhardt. In fact, they stunned the NASCAR world when they defeated the titans of the sport to win the 1980 championship. Buddy Baker, Neil Bonnett, Dan Gurney and even David Pearson couldn’t win a single race for Osterlund while Earnhardt won 7. That was definitely not the last time Sr. would get in a mid-pack car and take it to the front.
After a 2 year stint with Bud Moore, the 7x champion joined Richard Childress Racing. In the 10 years before he showed up, RCR won just 2 races courtesy of Ricky Rudd and had a best championship result of 9th. RCR’s numbers went through the roof when Earnhardt arrived winning 6 championships and 67 races! Let’s not overlook the fact that even though he was 49 years old when he was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500, he was by no means done winning. In 2000, Dale won two races finishing runner-up in the championship to Bobby Labonte. Since the legend lost his life in that tragic crash, the team has amassed zero NSCS titles and just 31 victories combining ALL of their drivers and remember, they are now a three car (once four car) team. Also, unlike Petty and Johnson who won all their championships with a single crew chief, Dale won his with several different ones proving it didn’t really matter who this man had calling the shots; he would still win.
With that being said, I can without a doubt in my mind say that Dale Earnhardt is the greatest NASCAR driver of all-time. Once a driver comes up through the ranks and starts winning NSCS titles left and right in a Front-Row Motorsports or Phoenix Racing car….then we’ll talk. As for who is #2 and #3, I think I agree with Kenny Wallace. Winning 62 races and 5 titles in the span of 12 years with how competitive this sport has become is simply remarkable. What we are witnessing right now is history in the making and it may never be repeated. Those numbers will continue to grow as his career progresses and I can easily see Jimmie as a 100x winner and 7x champion down the road. On a different note, it’s a shame that there is a contingent of fans out there who not only disrespect this true legend of our sport but go as far as to say that his team cheated and that’s why he won 5-straight. I can only imagine how many times Petty, Junior Johnson and even the Wood Brothers illegally modified their cars but got away with it. It’s not cheating, it’s innovating while trying not to step on NASCAR’s toes at the same time.
There is no doubt that all three of these men are legends in their own right and have incredible talent but obviously, there is no definitive way of saying who the best really is. It is all opinions based on some facts and individual observations which will of course vary from person to person. Fans and media members alike will debate until the end of time who should be called #1 but in my mind, only one man has proven that he deserves that title and his name is Ralph Dale Earnhardt…..the greatest NASCAR driver that ever lived.