HAMPTON, Ga. — There might be some holdouts who still refuse to admit Jimmie Johnson is the greatest NASCAR driver of all time. This despite six championships and 76 wins, the latest which tied Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s career mark Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
There are fans who want to hold onto the past, preferring to believe the days of Richard Petty and Earnhardt Sr. were tougher to win races. But even if that was true, there’s no denying this: Johnson is the by far the class of this era.
“I don't have a problem calling him the best of this generation — even as a competitor of his and having to go out there and race against him,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “Obviously he will credit his crew chief and his team. That all has been real consistent throughout his career — and they do deserve some credit — but Jimmie is just a phenomenal talent.”
For some reason, that’s still hard for some fans to acknowledge.
Put him on another team instead of Hendrick Motorsports and he wouldn’t win.
Johnson wouldn’t have six championships if not for the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff.
Let’s see what would happen if he didn’t have Chad Knaus as his crew chief.
But the reality is this: Johnson is simply that good.
“Jimmie is pretty awesome, isn’t he?” Knaus said. “Let’s just be honest.”
Drivers don’t easily heap praise on one another, especially when it comes to declaring someone else is better than they are. But the stats don’t lie: What Johnson has been able to do in his parity-filled generation is exceptional.
This has been NASCAR’s most competitive era, with the most lead-lap finishes and the closest battles. And the common thread since Johnson entered the sport? Johnson celebrating in victory lane.
Just look at NASCAR’s Chase Era (2004-present). Johnson has 70 wins during that time, which is more than double his next-closest competitor (Kyle Busch, 34).
“In this generation? He’s first,” Busch said. “He’s the guy that’s a championship contender. He’s a guy that wins races. He’s obviously the guy you look at every year.”
Busch might catch him someday. So might Joey Logano, who has 14 career wins at age 25.
But for now, even those hard-nosed competitors can look at the stat book and realize who they’re up against.
“I didn’t race back in the day, but I know how stiff the competition is these days,” Logano told USA TODAY Sports. “To be able to do that is incredible, you know what I mean? He’s an incredible race car driver.”
What makes him so good? It’s not just what he can do on the track, Logano said. The way Johnson handles difficult situations and works with his team — a crucial aspect of today’s NASCAR — puts the 40-year-old above the rest.
“He’s probably better than everybody that way,” Logano said.
When Johnson won five championships in a row and six in eight years, it was actually easier to dismiss his success than it is now. That’s because achievements in a short amount of time can be twisted into writing it off as a hot streak, where sustained greatness is more impressive.
But just look at what’s happened in Johnson’s “down” years — a laughable term that can only be judged by his own high standards — since his last title in 2013.
Last year, he had five wins. The year before, he had four (and hasn't had fewer since President Obama’s first term).
And through it all, Johnson hasn’t changed as a person. Ask around, and you'll be sure to find Johnson has the most respect among his peers than any other driver in the garage.
“He just has a little more money in his pocket now than he did (when he started), but he certainly doesn't act any different,” Earnhardt said. “He doesn't get enough credit for that, because if I won five in a row, that would probably change me a little bit. But it's amazing — he's really down to earth, so you like to see him do well.”
Knowing the character of both his father and his teammate, Earnhardt Jr. said the Intimidator “would have thought the world of (Johnson)” and enjoyed being around him.
Well, except in one area.
“I think Dad would have liked Jimmie as a person, but he certainly wouldn't have enjoyed competing against him,” Earnhardt said. “I don't think any of us really (do). I mean, I love when we race door-to-door, but when he goes out there and spanks you, it's not a lot of fun.”