Argument on all-time greatest NASCAR driver futile
Jimmie Johnson joined the ranks of seven-time champions with his win in the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It’s the most exclusive of exclusive fraternities within the NASCAR world, so exclusive that other than newest member Johnson, only NASCAR Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty are members. As its the most prestigious fraternity among NASCAR competitors of which to be a member. After all, nobody has more titles.
With Johnson’s seventh championship, debates on who is the greatest NASCAR driver of all-time have been stoked.
I’m not sure such a comparison is fair. Take Johnson, Petty and Earnhardt. These three guys raced in different eras. Johnson never raced against either of the other two drivers. Petty and Earnhardt’s careers did overlap by several years, but let’s get real, here; Petty was at the height of his career before Earnhardt came along. Sure, Petty’s final championship coincided with Earnhardt’s Rookie of the Year season in 1979, but Petty’s career as a driver began its downhill slide fairly quickly after his seventh championship. Yeah, Petty claimed that historic 200th win in 1984, but by that time, the wins already were few and far between.
One factor in a fair comparison would have to be competition. Today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup competition is pretty stiff. Whether some fans want to admit it or not, Johnson’s up against more drivers with legitimate shots at victory lane that Petty was back in his day, or Earnhardt, for that matter. Not to criticize drivers or car builders from yesteryear, but, seriously, how many drivers did Petty have to worry about race-in and race-out? Five or six? Nowadays, more than 10 or 12 drivers are getting to victory lane per season. In all fairness, Earnhardt didn’t have to worry about as many drivers as Johnson, either. He may have had concerns about more drivers than Petty, but not half of the race field.
On the surface, that could be the basis of an argument that Johnson’s the GOAT (greatest of all-time), but who’s to say that, in their prime, neither Petty nor Earnhardt would’ve beaten the competition Johnson’s beating now? We don’t know that the would have, but we don’t know that they wouldn’t have, either.
I think it’s fair to say that, because of competition levels then and now, Johnson’s seven championships are probably more impressive than those of Petty and Earnhardt, but does that automatically mean Johnson’s the best driver of the three? I don’t think so. I’m not saying he’s the best, but I’m also not saying either of the other two are the absolute best of all-time. Each was the best of his era, sure, but I’m not comfortable proclaiming any of the three best of all-time.
Then, there’s the different ways champions were and are determined. And before you discredit Johnson’s championships because you hate the Chase, keep in mind that Earnhardt and Petty’s championships weren’t won under the same points systems, either. Granted, pre-Chase, points were accumulated over the course of entire seasons with no resets, but the points systems have changed many times over the years — many times, even before the first Chase format was implemented.
Like the Chase or not, and like or dislike former points systems, they are what they are and they are/were how champions are/were determined. These drivers won championships under varying systems. Heck, each driver even won championships under multiple points systems. Who’s to say any of these drivers would have won championships under the points systems the others won theirs?
Who’s to say any of these drivers would’ve won as many championships against the competition the others won theirs?
In the movie Rocky Balboa, a computer-simulated fight provided a comparison between Rocky in his prime against “flavor of the month” fighter Mason Dixon in his current-day prime. I’m not sure that technology really exists, but short of some kind of simulated race between these three drivers, in their prime, against identical competition, I’m not sure a fair comparison can be made. And while we’re at it, why not put them in identically prepared cars for this hypothetical simulation?
That being said, the debates sure are fun, though. Boy, if we could have one of those simulations, that would be interesting to see.