NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson Drives for Five: Dale Earnhardt Almost Beat Him to It

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NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson Drives for Five: Dale Earnhardt Almost Beat Him to It
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Dale Earnhardt had his own brush with five straight championships.

Jimmie Johnson is right back in it. For those who thought the No. 48 team was looking vulnerable during the summer, it’s time to recalibrate.

After last week’s dominating win at the AAA 400 at Dover, Johnson has found his familiar fall mojo.

Johnson comes off that win heading to Kansas Speedway, a track that has been good to the No. 48 during the last four years. A win from the pole in 2008 and another pole in 2007 have given Johnson a 6.75 finishing average there since 2006.

Over the last eight races in the Chase in Johnson’s championship years, Johnson has posted 11 wins from here to the end of the year. Yes, the drive for five is alive and well.

Dale Earnhardt was making his own drive for five through the early 1990s. 

Between 1990 and 1994, Earnhardt won four titles. His only blemish was the 1992 season when he finished 12th, 504 markers out from Alan Kulwicki.

We couldn’t have known it then, but that 1992 season could have been the difference between Jimmie Johnson chasing history and Jimmie Johnson chasing Earnhardt.

1992 was a roller-coaster ride in Winston Cup. After Earnhardt's back-to-back titles in 1990 and 1991, the Ford camp was able to get rules concessions to get them back in the game. It was before the Car of Tomorrow or even common templates. As a result, Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, and Alan Kulwicki dominated the season.

The month of May brought the first All-Star race under the lights at Charlotte, and the racing world was talking about the promising kid behind the wheel of the Bill Davis Baby Ruth Ford in the Busch Series. His name was Jeff Gordon.

It was Richard Petty’s last season. He was eight years removed from his last win and 13 years removed from the last of his seven titles. He stood alone on the Mt. Everest of seven titles. After more than three decades as the sport’s most beloved driver, The King said goodbye.

Lost in the shuffle was Earnhardt’s attempt at collecting his third straight Winston Cup. It wasn’t his best year: he managed just one win at the Coca-Cola 600 and never led the points during the 1992 campaign.

Then came 1993 and 1994.

Earnhardt came back with a vengeance. He never fell to worse than second in points and posted six victories on the way to his sixth title in 1993. He backed it up with a three-win effort in 1994 where he led the points for 17 weeks on his way to his record-tying seventh title overall.

Earnhardt won four championships in a five-year stretch—back-to-back titles twice in five years: '90-91 and '93-94. His only hiccup in his drive for five was his subpar 1992 season.

During that remarkable five-year run, Earnhardt led the points a total of 77 out of 148 weeks, despite never leading in 1992. He posted 23 wins and won four titles. Little did we know at the time that if things had gone a little differently for The Intimidator in ‘92, the 1994 season would have been his Drive for Five.

What’s interesting, though, when looking back at the 1992 season is how competitive it became once Earnhardt was out of the title mix. The power vacuum allowed other drivers to show their stuff.

No fewer than three drivers had a shot at the championship going into the final race at Atlanta Motor Speedway that blustery day in November 1992. The season came down to bonus points in the end.

Elliott had a shot and won the race, but Kulwicki had him covered. He led 103 laps to Elliott’s 102, collecting five points for leading and five more for leading the most. Ten points was the difference in the championship: 4,078 for Kulwicki, 4,068 for Elliott.

Sadly, Davey Allison never got his title. He was knocked out in an accident and finished 63 markers back that day. Less than a year later, both he and Kulwicki had passed away just 103 days apart. They were both in the top 10 in the standings when they died.

Both Kulwicki and Allison were continuing to show that they were ready to capitalize had Dale Earnhardt tripped up in 1993, just as they had in 1992. The duo proved to be hungry drivers ready to fill the void created by the dominant driver of the time.

Jimmie Johnson will falter someday. Maybe it’s this year; maybe it’s not. He won’t win titles forever. When he has his own 1992-like season, there will be a whole crop of drivers ready to capitalize. Among the chasers there are seven drivers who have never hoisted a Sprint Cup Championship. Five of them, including leader Denny Hamlin, are within 80 points of the lead. They will be around when the opportunity comes.

When it does, look out. It won’t be Allison, Elliott, and Kulwicki battling for the title, but it sure could feel like that cold Atlanta day in 1992 all over again.

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