How Big Is the Gap Between Jimmie Johnson and NASCAR's 2nd-Best Driver?
He may be two full seasons removed from his last Sprint Cup title, but there's no doubt right now: Jimmie Johnson is the best driver in the series.
It was clear in Daytona, where Johnson won his second 500 after a late-race duel with Brad Keselowski and held the point for the final 10 laps. It was reaffirmed last Saturday when he took the lead on the final restart of the Sprint All-Star race and never looked back, taking his second win in the event and fourth of his career.
The question that we had to ask the past couple of years, whether or not he was still the best, is no longer relevant. The new question is how much better he is the second-best driver.
If you're asking the question above in the literal sense, it's 44 points, or about one full race, better than Carl Edwards, who currently ranks second in points. It's also 3.5 average finishing positions, as Johnson's 6.7 easily trumps Edwards' 10.2.
Going beyond that, Johnson also has one more top-five, one more top-10, one more lead-lap finish and three more laps completed than any other driver in the series this year. But even with the numbers as they are, they're the symptom of the ability, not the cause.
Or maybe it's a bit of both. It's hard not to think of Johnson as a driver whose performance is usually a reflection of his momentum—how many times has he climbed the standings in the Chase when one win leads to another?—and this season has been a reflection of that. A win at Daytona begot a second-place finish at Phoenix and a sixth at Las Vegas; a win at Martinsville begot four finishes of sixth or better in the last five races, plus the All-Star victory last weekend.
The gap is partially because Johnson succeeds in places where other title challengers fail. His patience far supersedes Kyle Busch's and his ability to perform in clutch situations gives him an edge on Edwards. His rapport with crew chief Chad Knaus is still the gold standard, even as Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe mount a challenge and Matt Kenseth and Jason Ratcliff return the No. 20 car to the front of the pack.
In short, Johnson has succeeded by making other competitors' weaknesses his strengths and also making other competitors' strengths his team's foundation.
There is always something to be said for having the best equipment in the garage, and Rick Hendrick has been in that spot for years. And Knaus' abilities would most likely exist without Johnson as his driver, as unfathomable as it would be to ever separate them.
But the greatest advantage that Johnson has over the rest of the field is his ability to maximize what he gets out of his team's advantages. Penske Racing had a championship-winning team last year, clearly, but you wouldn't have guessed it based on A.J. Allmendinger or Sam Hornish's performances. David Ragan spent three winless years with Jimmy Fennig, the man who took Kurt Busch to a title and numerous other Roush Racing drivers close to it, atop his pit box.
And nobody else but Johnson can claim to have been a part of every Chase for the Sprint Cup since the format's existence. Everyone else has missed at least one.
Therein lies the gap. You name the category, and Johnson is usually one better than second place. That's fitting for a driver who is the sport's clear-cut number one.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.
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