Johnson, Earnhardt, Petty: Who’s The Greatest?

Johnson wins Martinsville

Who is the greatest of all time in NASCAR? As Jimmie Johnson positions himself for a shot at a record-tying seventh Cup championship, the topic comes up again. Critics- of whom there are more than a few- say they can never accept his championships, as they say his achievements are a product of a championship system they can’t accept.

Hate the game, not the player, I say. If you put the Chase aside, Jimmie Johnson is the greatest NASCAR driver of the new millennium. Just look at the wins. When it comes to winning, no one has even come close. He broke in roughly at the same time as Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch. Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. actually started sooner. None even come close- not even the younger Busch- to Johnson’s 78 victories. Kyle has 38. So does Kenseth. Harvick has had a new lease on life since leaving Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas Racing, but he stands at 35 wins. Junior has 26.  Then there are the championships. The greatest of this era? It’s not even close…..for now.

Now, comparing Johnson to the likes of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. is another conversation altogether. It’s an apples and oranges comparison. Petty may have had tremendous advantages in terms of funding, but in addition to all his victories and championships, “The King” and his cronies were pioneers and NASCAR innovators. With all apologies to Curtis Turner, Petty is NASCAR’s Babe Ruth- the original great. In his era, NASCAR staged as many as 48 races a year. They raced on dirt. There was factory backing.

When it comes to pure driving skill and pure competitive mastery, it’s hard to go against Earnhardt. Oh yes, his critics often let their disdain for his tactics blind their recognition of his abilities. Given his humble start in the sport, it took “The Intimidator” time to get untracked. Once he got it going, Earnhardt dominated NASCAR from 1987 to 1994. He was like NASCAR’s Joe Montana. He doesn’t necessarily have the biggest numbers on the all-time stat charts, but boy, did this star shine bright for an era. For his time, Earnhardt was the greatest.

This is to say nothing of the greatness of Jeff Gordon, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip and other luminaries who made tremendous contributions. What we’re suggesting is the greatest of all time is unknowable. Petty was past his prime when Earnhardt came along. Earnhardt died before Johnson made his Cup debut. That would be the only way to truly settle it; let them settle it on the track. Sadly, that can never happen.

How great is Jimmie Johnson among the all-time greats? He’s the greatest of his era, and he’s one of the most consistently great over a long span of time.