Now that Jimmie Johnson has won his sixth Sprint Cup championship, the same question that dogged him after most of his first five titles has once again popped up: Where does he rank among the greatest drivers in NASCAR history?
Is he truly the third-greatest driver behind Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, who both share the most Cup championships (seven each)?
Will he not be considered the greatest of the great until he ties and then surpasses Petty and Earnhardt by winning championship No. 8, potentially two years from now?
Or will the cynics still say Johnson—despite six Cup crowns and 66 race wins—doesn't belong in the same conversation as Petty and Earnhardt? Some might go a step further by including David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip and even Johnson's own teammate, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, above him.
Frankly, it's time for the naysayers to give it a rest.
Sure, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have had their share of issues with NASCAR over the years, including several penalties and suspensions of Knaus for pushing the rules envelope too far, if not downright cheating.
But it's hard not to give this duo credit.
You don't win 66 races and now six championships if you continually cheat or constantly bend the rules, push the envelope, work in the so-called gray area or whatever other phraseology some care to use.
Sooner or later, you're going to get caught or some other competitor is going to call foul and get a gang of others behind him.
That's not the case with Johnson and Knaus. They're both among the most respected in the sport, they are still looked upon as the premier team, and, most significantly, they keep winning championships.
There's no denying any of that.
So, let's go back to the original question: Where does Johnson rank among NASCAR's all-time greats?
In a way, the answer is somewhat of a conundrum.
Petty won 200 races and seven championships in his career, while Earnhardt won only 76 races yet still managed to claim seven titles. It's hard not to rank them first and second, if not totally even for having the same number of titles.
If you stay with that championship theme, there's no question Johnson belongs at No. 3.
But how do you ignore Pearson's 105 wins or Yarborough's 83 wins, even though each of them only had three championships? Or Gordon's 88 wins and four championships? Or Waltrip's 84 wins and three championships?
What about Tony Stewart's three championships and 48 race wins? Or Lee Petty's three titles and 54 race wins?
Well, while I still think Petty and Earnhardt deserve the title of the all-time greatest, what Johnson has done in his career definitely makes him worthy of being considered No. 1 as well.
Consider that Richard Petty competed in 1,184 races in his Cup career, followed by Waltrip (809), Gordon (725), Earnhardt (676), Pearson (575), Yarborough (562), Stewart (521) and Lee Petty (427).
Johnson, on the other hand, has now won six Cup championships in just 435 starts.
Yes, you read that right: six championships in just 435 starts!
And at this time next year, we could very well be talking about him winning a record-tying seventh Cup crown with just 471 starts and winning a record eighth title two seasons from now after 507 starts.
Given that Petty had almost three times the number of starts Johnson has had and Earnhardt had 240 more in his career than J.J. has currently, how can you say the driver of the No. 48 truly is now not the greatest, the No. 1 driver of all time in NASCAR?
It's simple arithmetic.
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