NASCAR Sprint Cup: Ranking Jimmie Johnson and the Last 15 Title-Winning Seasons

Ryan Papaserge@@RyanPapasergeCorrespondent IOctober 26, 2010

NASCAR Sprint Cup: Ranking Jimmie Johnson and The Last 15 Title-Winning Seasons

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    Over the next four races, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson will engage in a three-way battle for the 2010 Sprint Cup championship.

    While a title for Johnson would mark an unprecedented fifth consecutive title, Hamlin and Harvick are looking to join an elite group of 29 drivers who have won a championship at NASCAR's highest level of competition.

    Of those 29, eight drivers have won a title over the past 15 years. How do those 15 Sprint Cup championship seasons stack up against each other?

    Here's a look at the last 15 seasons, from least to most impressive.

How Were The Seasons Ranked?

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    In creating this list, the championship seasons were ranked on the basis of consistency—not the amount of races won in a particular season.

    It would be unfair to assume that Matt Kenseth's one win during 2003 season could be held against him when compared to Jeff Gordon's 14 wins in 1998.

    Therefore, the amount of top-five and top-10 finishes recorded by each champion was taken into account, with the respect to the era (Chase or non-Chase) in which the particular title was won.

15. Tony Stewart, 2002

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    Stewart's first championship season was propelled by wins in Atlanta in March, Richmond in May and Watkins Glen in August.

    The then-"Rushville Rocket" made up a 162-point deficit in the final 11 races, including a string of five consecutive top-10 finishes. Stewart took the lead after a second-place finish at Talladega, withstanding a late charge by Mark Martin to win the championship by 38 points.

    However, Stewart's six DNFs during the 36-race campaign place him at the bottom of this list.

14. Kurt Busch, 2004

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    Kurt Busch's title may wind up being the most significant on this list, due to his championship coming in the first Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    With two wins (Bristol in March and Loudon in July), the Las Vegas native entered the Chase in seventh place, 30 points behind Jeff Gordon. Busch made his mark in the first race of the 10-race playoff in Loudon, leading 155 of 300 laps en route to a season sweep of New Hampshire International Speedway.

    Busch only finished out of the top 10 once during the Chase—a 42nd-place finish due to an engine failure at Atlanta—and rebounded from a loose wheel to finish fifth at Homestead, clinching the title.

13. Matt Kenseth, 2003

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    Matt Kenseth may best be remembered as the champion who ultimately caused the creation of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    Kenseth's lone win of the 2003 season came in the third race of the season at Las Vegas in March, taking the points lead with the victory.

    The Wisconsin native never relinquished the lead for the duration of the 36-race schedule, earning 25 top-10 finishes en route to winning the title by 90 points over Jimmie Johnson.

12. Jimmie Johnson, 2009

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    Johnson's fourth consecutive title may wind up being his least impressive. As the El Cajon, Calif., native has done so well throughout his career, Johnson dominated throughout the final 10-race playoff, winning four races with a worst finish of 38th at Texas.

    By that point, Johnson had a 73-point advantage over Mark Martin and cruised to a historic fourth title.

11. Jeff Gordon, 2001

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    Gordon's fourth and most recent title came during a season marred by the death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in February. While four first-time winners visited Victory Lane, it would be Gordon who took home the title at season's end.

    Gordon won six races in the 2001 campaign, along with 18 top-five finishes and 24 top 10s. He won the then-Winston Cup title by 344 points over Stewart.

10. Jimmie Johnson, 2007

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    As Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman are to closing out baseball games, Jimmie Johnson is to closing out Sprint Cup titles.

    In 2007, Johnson won four of the final five races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup en route to a 10-win season in which he had 20 top-five finishes.

9. Jimmie Johnson, 2008

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    Johnson's 2008 title was another example of the No. 48 team flexing their muscle in the final 10 races of the season.

    Tallying eight top-10 finishes in the Chase, including wins at Kansas, Martinsville and Phoenix, the Californian won the title by 69 points over a charging Carl Edwards.

8. Tony Stewart, 2005

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    Stewart won a career-high five races in his second championship season for Joe Gibbs Racing, including his first career wins at Indianapolis and Daytona.

    Entering the Chase with a five-point lead over Greg Biffle, "Smoke" became the only driver to win the championship in the Chase era without a victory in the final 10 races.

7. Jeff Gordon, 1997

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    The precursor to a historically-dominant 1998 season, Gordon's second title in three seasons blazed a new trail for the "Rainbow Warriors."

    Starting with his first Daytona 500 win in February, the No. 24 team won the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte and the Southern 500 in Darlington to become the second driver to win the Winston Million.

    Gordon held off both Dale Jarrett (minus-14 points) and Mark Martin (minus-29 points) to win the title.

6. Jimmie Johnson, 2006

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    Johnson's first title was his most consistent effort. After fading back to eighth place in the standings after Talladega, 156 points behind leader Jeff Burton, the No. 48 recorded five consecutive top-two finishes and six consecutive top-10 finishes to finish the season.

    He won the title by 56 points over Kenseth.

5. Jeff Gordon, 1995

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    Jeff Gordon's first title reign marked the beginning of NASCAR's emergence into the mainstream.

    With his photogenic looks and equally-impressive driving skills, he won the Sprint Cup at 24 years of age, the youngest winner of the title in NASCAR history.

    Gordon tallied seven wins in his third season in the series, and won the title by 34 points over Dale Earnhardt.

4. Terry Labonte, 1996

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    In terms of dominance, Terry Labonte's championship in 1996 may be the most impressive. In the No. 5 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports, "Texas Terry" finished in the top 10 in all but seven races on the 31-race slate.

    He needed just two wins (North Wilkesboro in April and Charlotte in October) to boost his efforts, and won the championship by 37 points over teammate Jeff Gordon.

3. Bobby Labonte, 2000

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    Four years later, Terry's younger brother earned the right to be named champion. Driving the No. 18 for Joe Gibbs Racing, Bobby Labonte won four races, including the Brickyard 400 in August.

    Earning 24 top-10 finishes in the 34-race campaign, Labonte cruised to a 269-point victory over Dale Earnhardt.

2. Dale Jarrett, 1999

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    Dale Jarrett's championship season included 29 top 10s in 34 races, including a string of 20 consecutive finishes inside the top quarter of the field.

    With four wins (including the Brickyard 400) to their credit, the No. 88 Robert Yates Racing Ford team won the title by 201 points over Bobby Labonte.

1. Jeff Gordon, 1998

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    In the sport's 50th anniversary season, Jeff Gordon had the most impressive championship run—not only from the past 15 years, but dating back to the start of NASCAR's Modern Era in 1972.

    The No. 24 team recorded 13 wins in the 33-race campaign, including a seven-race string in which Gordon won six races. The "Rainbow Warrior" had 28 top 10s with an average finish of 5.7, and defeated Mark Martin by 364 points to win his third Sprint Cup crown.

    Disagree with these rankings? Comment below.

    Ryan Papaserge is a junior Journalism/Mass Communication student at St. Bonaventure University and a writing intern at Bleacher Report.