Richard Petty vs. Jimmie Johnson: How Does J. J. Compare?
It is always very tough to compare competitors from different eras in any sport. Things change over time in all sports. But comparisons are inevitable, and fans will always have those conversations wondering "who was better?"
Whether it is Babe Ruth vs. Hank Aaron vs. Barry Bonds or Wilt Chamberlain vs. Shaquille O'Neal, it is a difficult argument. Ruth played in an era where there were no teams east of the Mississippi, no night games and no minorities. How do you make a fair comparison between him and Bonds, who played in an era of performance-enhancing drugs, but also 30 teams, night games and many international stars?
NASCAR is no different.
Petty raced in an era when stock cars really were stock cars. Then by the time he was finished, it was more like the sport we have today where the cars were made in race shops in Charlotte instead of assembly lines in Detroit.
In Petty's day, the schedule was over 50 races. Some of those races were on dirt tracks. Even the Twin 125s at Daytona counted in the points. Most of the races were run on half-mile or shorter tracks.
Today, the Sprint Cup series is run on super-speedways 1.5 miles or longer nearly every week. Every race is on national TV. Every race is a major event. Demands on a driver's time is greater than ever before. In Petty's era, drivers could go home during the week and spend time with their families. Now, drivers spend midweek traveling to the next event which might be clear across the country or schmoozing sponsors.
But, we still like to compare. Petty, Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip and David Pearson put together careers that put them in the "Greatest of All Time" conversation. So let's look at how Johnson stacks up to "The King."
Points Championships: Petty 7... Johnson 5
We can't even do a fair comparison here because The King's titles were won on a totally different system than Johnson's. However, if we look at it this way, each driver won against the competition of his era in the system of his time, then we can at least admit that Jimmie Johnson has dominated his generation in much the same manner as Petty did.
Petty wound up with seven points championships in an era with Hall of Famers such as David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, and later on, Darrell Waltrip.
Sprint Cup Wins: Petty 200...Johnson 62, so Far
Two hundred wins will never be eclipsed. Even considering they ran a lot more races back in Petty's day, 200 wins is astonishing. It would be about like somebody winning between 135 and 140 with today's smaller schedule. Dale Earnhardt ended up with about half to provide a comparison.
Johnson has 62 wins at age 37. He may have an outside shot at 100 if he stays healthy and hungry for another six or seven years. But we have to give this one to The King.
Daytona 500 Wins: Petty 7...Johnson 2
Seven Daytona 500 wins when the next man on the list has three (Jeff Gordon, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Dale Jarrett) is total domination, no matter the era.
Of course, Petty ran during the pre-restrictor plate days, and Johnson runs in an era where all 43 cars are equal, so even here there can be an argument. The Daytona 500 is the biggest event in the sport, and Petty rose to the occasion like no other.
Both Petty and Johnson won wherever they were put on the track. They both dominated on the super speedways, intermediate tracks, short tracks, even road courses.
It's tough to find a place where Johnson hasn't won. Watkins Glen is one track he has yet to win, but he does have a win at Infineon. Chicagoland is another, but he has two wins at Kansas which is a similar track.
Petty also won everywhere he went. The most starts he had anywhere without a win was eight (Myrtle Beach and Watkins Glen). He never won at the Glen or at Infineon, but he four wins at Riverside which was another road course. He had 15 wins at North Wilkesboro and 13 at Richmond.
It would be a tough thing to top The King in his fan appeal. Most of the time in NASCAR, a driver who wins too often is hated by the fans. Darrell Waltrip went through it, then Dale Earnhardt after that and finally Jeff Gordon. The only exception that I can recall is Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson has never been called out by the boo-birds. Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart have—even at times, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. I can even remember Rusty Wallace getting some fan hate at times. But Johnson never has.
He has never gotten as much love from the fans as Petty did (and still does), but as he starts breaking records, that may all change. Johnson is probably the closest in overall comparison to Richard Petty as there has ever been.