Will a 6th Sprint Cup Title Make Jimmie Johnson the Greatest of All Time?

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistNovember 11, 2013

Matt Kenseth and all others are now in Jimmie Johnson's rear-view mirror.
Matt Kenseth and all others are now in Jimmie Johnson's rear-view mirror.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Forget the NASCAR hype about Matt Kenseth or Kevin Harvick having a chance to catch Jimmie Johnson in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

This 2013 Cup title is all Johnson's.

Sure, the others remain mathematically eligible to compete with Johnson for all the glory heading into the Ford 400 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. There will be news conferences upon news conferences hyping the championship "battle."

But it's over, folks.

Johnson made sure of that with his third-place finish in the Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, where Harvick pulled out an unlikely win that at least earned him a place at the final, if meaningless, news conference table.

Crew chief Chad Knaus has rare chemistry with his driver.
Crew chief Chad Knaus has rare chemistry with his driver.Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Harvick heads into Homestead 34 points behind Johnson; Kenseth, after a disastrous 23rd-place finish at Phoenix that included one painful pit stop of more than 25 seconds (about twice the time a good pit stop should take), trails Johnson by 28.

What that means in rough numbers is that even if Kenseth wins the final race at Homestead, all Johnson has to do is finish 23rd or better and the title is still his. Johnson can finish 24th or better under that scenario as long as he leads at least one lap, and 25th or better if he leads the most laps in his No. 48 Chevrolet.

To put that in perspective, Johnson has finished sixth or better in eight of the first nine Chase races. His worst Chase finish is a 13th at Talladega.

So you get the idea. Lightning would have to strike Johnson's car on Lap 1 to prevent him from winning this thing at this point—and so let's concede that he has career championship No. 6 in the bag.

The question that now must be asked is this: With six titles and so much of his career still left ahead of him, is now the time to seriously start considering that Jimmie Johnson might be the best NASCAR Sprint Cup driver of all time?

Sure, he's still one championship short of the record held jointly by Hall of Fame legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. But Johnson is only 37, and if you really want to start crunching some interesting numbers, let's take closer looks at where Petty and Earnhardt were at this comparative juncture in their careers.

Johnson has made 434 career Cup starts, has posted 66 wins and is about to win his sixth title. He's never finished lower than sixth in the final Cup standings, finishing second twice and third once in his 12 full Cup seasons while never failing to qualify for the Chase since its introduction in 2004—his second full-time season.

Petty, who owns the skewed all-time record for race wins at the Cup level with 200, raced until he was 55 years old. His final win came in 1984 at age 47. His first title came in 1964 at the age of 27, when he ran in 61 of 62 scheduled races and won nine times. (Hence, the skewed nature of his record total of wins, as Johnson races in an era where a season is comprised of 36 races and the weekly competition pool is undoubtedly deeper and more equal in terms of what they are permitted to have to work with by NASCAR.)

Petty made his 434rd career start early in the 1970 season at age 33. At that point in his career, he had piled up 101 career victories and earned the first two of his seven championships.

At age 37 in 1974, Petty won 10 of 30 scheduled races and captured the fifth of his titles. He won 36 more races and two more championships after 37, with his last title coming at the age of 42 in 1979.

Earnhardt got a much slower start to his career and made his 434rd career start in the middle of the 1993 season at the age of 42. He had by then earned 56 of what would be his 76 career victories and would go on that season to earn the sixth of his seven championships.

Earnhardt won his final title in 1994 at the age of 43. He finished second two more times, including in 2000 at age 49—just months before he died in a tragic last-lap accident during the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500.

The Intimidator's most dominant season came right around when he was Johnson's current age in 1987. Then 36, Earnhardt won 11 of 29 races while leading more than a third of all laps ran on the season en route to his second consecutive and third overall championship.

AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 10:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet, races during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 10, 2013 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Ima
Harry How/Getty Images

Had enough of the numbers?

No doubt Johnson's competition has, too. But they are necessary to point out that at age 37, neither Petty nor Earnhardt were close to being finished making noise on what was then the equivalent of today's Sprint Cup circuit.

And neither is Johnson, who might have more left in his driving tank at this age than the two aforementioned legends did in their day when they approached 40.

To say Johnson not only does the driving but is driven is an understatement. The man runs and trains like a triathlete, keeping himself in supreme shape for the long run.

Furthermore, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are so close to history now that there is no way they'll let up. They've seen how fragile and rare the special chemistry they have is, and how difficult it can be to attempt regaining it with a new partner. (See: Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and his history after parting ways with long-time crew chief Ray Evernham in 1999.)

They realize how difficult it is to win a championship, but they also know how to manage the Chase better than any of their fellow competitors. The last time they won a title, they reeled off five in a row. Who's to say they couldn't do that again? Or at least the next two or three?

Even if Knaus bails out at some point (not likely until they win at least title No. 7 together), Johnson already has placed himself squarely in the conversation when folks start to debate the greatest driver of all time.

And the numbers make it appear highly likely that by age 40 he'll have a championship total that could put him at the head of the all-time pack, with another five years or more of prime competitiveness still left in him.