NASCAR Sprint Cup: Is Jimmie Johnson the Best Driver Ever?

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NASCAR Sprint Cup: Is Jimmie Johnson the Best Driver Ever?
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Jimmie Johnson is undoubtedly one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history.

With his win at Kansas on Sunday, Johnson tied Rusty Wallace for eighth on the all-time wins list with 55. His five championships rank third all time, behind only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who won seven championships each. Although his 25 poles rank just 26th all time, Johnson's 10 wins from the pole are the 15th most ever.

Is that enough to rank Johnson as the greatest driver in NASCAR history, better than Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip?

You can make a pretty good case for Johnson. After all, he's the only driver to win more than three consecutive championships, and might make it six straight in 2011. But Johnson will have to equal and perhaps surpass Petty's and Earnhardt's career total of seven titles and add a few dozen more victories before he can aspire to the title of greatest ever.

While Johnson may not be the greatest driver in NASCAR history (not yet at least), he just might be the most consistent. Consider these stats:

Kansas was Johnson's 20th top-10 finish in 2011. He's scored at least that many top-10s every year since 2002, his rookie year in Cup competition. Only one other driver has scored at least 20 top-10s every year for ten consecutive years: Jeff Gordon, who did it from 1995-2004. Not even Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip or Dale Earnhardt can say they ever had that consistency.

When he retires, will Jimmie Johnson be regarded as the greatest driver in NASCAR history?

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To put this in perspective, most people consider Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards to be championship-caliber drivers. But Harvick has had as many as 20 top-10s just twice in his first nine Cup seasons, while Edwards has done it three times in seven years. Johnson has never dipped below 20 top-10s per year since arriving on the Cup scene. That's remarkable consistency.

Johnson has also been consistent in his finishes in the final standings. He's won it all five times, but he's also finished second twice and his worst finish is fifth.

Only two other drivers in history have finished fifth or better for that many years in a row: Richard Petty from 1966-1977 and Darrell Waltrip from 1977-1987. But that's it, and both of those drivers did it in an era without the parity we've seen in NASCAR for the last couple of decades, not to mention before the advent of the Chase. Johnson could extend his streak to 10 seasons of fifth or better in 2011 and has a legitimate chance to surpass Petty's record of 12 such seasons in a row.

Jeff Gordon never had a stretch of fifth or better for longer than four years. Dale Earnhardt finished third or better for six years from 1986-1991, including four championships. He then slipped to 12th in 1992 before a five-year run of fifth or better from 1993-1997, including two more titles. But he never put together as many consecutive seasons of fifth or better as Jimmie Johnson.

Finally, Johnson has won multiple races every year since 2002, a streak of 10 years and counting. Johnson is unlikely to earn this record, as Richard Petty won multiple races for 18 straight years from 1960-1977. But he could get the modern-era record (1972 to present).

Dale Earnhardt's best streak of winning multiple races was nine years. Jeff Gordon has the modern-era record with 14 straight, from 1994-2007. Darrell Waltrip won at least a couple of events from 1977-1986.

If Johnson can win multiple races for four more years he would tie Gordon's mark. Will he do it? It's certainly possible.

In addition, if Johnson can win another race in 2011, he'll have won at least three races for the last 10 years. Gordon also holds the modern-era mark for most consecutive years with at least three wins at 11. Assuming he can win again in 2011, Johnson would have a chance to equal that mark next year.

But whatever happens, since bursting onto the Cup scene 10 years ago, it's clear that Jimmie Johnson has put together the most consistent decade in NASCAR history. And by the end of the next decade, we might be talking about him as the greatest driver NASCAR has ever seen.

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