“As far as I’m concerned, (Hank) Aaron is the best ball player of my era. He is to baseball of the last 15 years what Joe DiMaggio was before him. He’s never received the credit he’s due.” – Mickey Mantle in Baseball Digest (June 1970)
Sometimes greatness is achieved not by doing one spectacular deed, but by doing several things well over an extended period of time. Though he never hit 50 home runs in a season, Hank Aaron was for 33 years baseball’s home run king. Over the span of his 22 year career, “Hammerin’ Hank” performed at a high enough level to pile up an impressive body of work. Yet, for all he accomplished, he never quite achieved the stature of a Mantle or Mays; some of it due to personality, some of it due to where he played, some of due to the era in which he played.
Jimmie Johnson is NASCAR’s Hank Aaron. Since his first full Cup season in 2002, he has never failed to go a season without winning at least two races, and he has made the Chase every year since its inception in 2004. Not even Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt or David Pearson- arguably NASCAR’s big three can boast five consecutive championships. Only Petty and Earnhardt have won more- with seven each. Racing in an era that has featured some of racing’s best ever: Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth- only Gordon (87) has more wins among active drivers than Johnson’s 65. His nearest active competitors is Tony Stewart, who is 17 wins and two titles behind him.
Look at the tracks where he’s won: we all know now about his eighth victory at Dover, a challenging concrete one miler. He also owns eight wins at one of NASCAR’s smallest tracks; Martinsvile. Johnson also boasts six victories at Charlotte, five wins at Auto Club, four at Phoenix, he’s kissed the bricks four times at Indy and four at Sin City. He’s won everything from the gargantuan plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega), and a road course (Sonoma) as well.
Critics can argue the value of his championships because of the Chase format, and the weight it lends to the final ten races of the season. Shall we debate all the competitive advantages Petty had in his day, or the means by which Dale Earnhardt won some of his victories. Before you get upset, we’re just playing devil’s advocate. Championships aside, you can argue all you want, but what Johnson has accomplished in the manner in which he’s done it can not be denied.
Is he the best ever? That can’t be answered. Jimmie Johnson’s career is still going, and there’s no telling what else he’ll cross off his “to do” list before its over. We’ll also concede that NASCAR has been around long enough we can no longer effectively compare the greats of different eras. It makes as much sense as comparing Peyton Manning to Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas. It makes for a fun debate, but it is an answer not knowable.
For all the flak he gets, driving for the “New York Yankees of NASCAR” or having “Cheatin’ (some say) Chad” Knaus, Jimmie Johnson has racked up great accomplishments in one of the most competitive environments ever. Is he THE greatest? Maybe, maybe not. Is he one of the greats? Without a doubt. Like Hank Aaron, Jimmie Johnson may never truly get his due, but the numbers don’t lie.
While he’s never quite dominated in the same way as the most revered figures in NASCAR (the most races he’s won in a season is seven), Jimmie Johnson has raced at a very high level, with an incredible consistency, for over a decade. He may not be that flashy, but what he’s done is impossible to ignore. Hank Aaron had that kind of career and became a kind of baseball royalty of sorts, but he never quite got his due until his career was almost over. People complain about Jimmie Johnson now, but one can’t help but think that when his career winds down, a greater number of fans will more fully appreciate all that he’s accomplished. We’re seeing one of the all-time greats in the 48.