Great Is Established; Greatest Is Premature

Jimmie Johnson, in a Chevy, leads Kyle Busch, in a Toyota, during the Ford 400. (HHP/Brian Lawdermilk photo for Chevrolet)

Jimmie Johnson, in a Chevy, leads Kyle Busch, in a Toyota, during the Ford 400. (HHP/Brian Lawdermilk photo for Chevrolet)

[cb_profit_poster Travel1]Clinton, S.C., Monday, November 18, 2013, 1:38 p.m.

One day, NASCAR fans will stop quibbling about Jimmie Johnson. They won’t be able to withstand the sheer weight of Sprint Cup championships.

It’s already subsiding, though the detractors remain. He has won six championships, concentrated over a span of eight years more densely than anyone else in history. Still, of course, some say: (a.) anyone could do it in that invincible No. 48 with Chad Knaus as crew chief; (b.) if Rick Hendrick had a sense of fairness, he’d give Knaus to Dale Earnhardt Jr.; (c.) the championships don’t really count because of that godforsaken Chase format; and, in many cases, (d.) all of the above.

All of the above are ridiculous. Johnson’s great. He’s one of the greatest. That has been established. Placing him in the all-time rankings is debatable and will always be, but it won’t be time for that debate until Johnson’s career has run its course because his career hasn’t had the twilight that visited most of the greats. For every web-hit-motivated blogger ready at this moment to declare him the best who ever rode high, wide and handsome through high-banked turns, there was an ink-stained wretch in 1998 who wrote the same about Jeff Gordon.

Billy Wade and Richard Petty, circa 1964.

Billy Wade and Richard Petty, circa 1964.

This analysis can’t be made with numbers, and it can’t be made on the basis of time. It can only be made in the mind, which is highly subjective. Nothing is really objective. No one knows definitively how Herb Thomas would fare in a Lowe’s Chevrolet, and no one knows how Johnson would handle a Fabulous Hudson Hornet.

It was said of the football coach Bear Bryant (by another football coach, Jake Gaither), that “he can take his’un and beat your’n, or he can take your’n and beat his’un.” Johnson has proved the former but will likely never be able to prove the latter.

Johnson the well-conditioned athlete never had to wrestle his car around a dirt track without power steering. Thomas never got to go as fast. They (Thomas passed away in 2000) bookend the progression of NASCAR greats, separated by Lee Petty, Buck Baker, Tim Flock, Junior Johnson, Fireball Roberts, Ned Jarrett, Fred Lorenzen, David Pearson, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Davey Allison, Harry Gant, Tim Richmond, Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and several others, depending on whom one asks.

A trio of NASCAR greats, from left: Chad Knaus, Rick Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson. (HHP/Harold Hinson photo for Chevrolet)

A trio of NASCAR greats, from left: Chad Knaus, Rick Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson. (HHP/Harold Hinson photo for Chevrolet)

It is, however, an appropriate time to make a case for Johnson, though it won’t be as conclusive as when his career is over.

“I think when you look at Jimmie Johnson, I like to use the (Bill) Parcells quote: ‘You are what your record says you are,’” Hendrick said. “To hear Richard Petty say what he said, Denny (Hamlin), the competitors, it’s taken a while for people to want to acknowledge it, but they all know how hard it is to do this. To come out and do it year after year, have the record he’s had, the combination that he and Chad (Knaus) have had …

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years now. The attention to detail that Chad goes through preparing for a race elevates the whole company. Jimmie elevates all the talent in our organization.”

Hendrick, by the way, has owned more championship teams than any other man in history. He isn’t objective about Johnson, but he’s certainly as knowledgeable as anyone.

Jimmie Johnson hoists the trophy for a sixth time. (HHP/Brian Lawdermilk photo for Chevrolet)

Jimmie Johnson hoists the trophy for a sixth time. (HHP/Brian Lawdermilk photo for Chevrolet)

Johnson? Oh, he’s useless. He only toots his horn when the band absolutely has to have a soloist. Even then, he doesn’t jazz it up.

This we can conclude, though. Johnson thrives on pressure. One more championship ties him with Petty and Earnhardt. He didn’t retire, at least not all the way, into the comfortable façade of humility when someone pointed out Sunday night that he will be “chasing history” for the rest of his career.

“There [are] still great years out ahead of us, but all of that is in the future, a seventh, an eighth,” Johnson said. “Richard (Petty) said eight to 10. That’s all ahead of us. I don’t want to focus on that yet. It’s not time. I want to unplug, enjoy the sixth, let it soak in. We’ll get to Daytona for testing soon enough. I guess, by then it’s probably appropriate to ask the question.

“I’m humbled by the nice things that have been said by competitors and owners, my peers in this industry. I think their [opinions are] very important. I don’t think my opinion matters. It’s not for the athlete, the driver. It’s bestowed upon you; it’s passed down from others. If others are saying it, I’m not going to deny it, chase it away. Sure, I would love to be considered [the greatest]. If you look at stats, there [are] still numbers out there that I need to achieve. That’s why I say, until I hang my helmet up, it’s not necessarily a fair conversation to have.”

Exactly. The champion gets it while, all around him, the wails of the exaggerators, promoters and uninformed drown him out. I guess everyone wants a scoop.

The curtain falls on another season, and it might even be a week before people start talking about how ready they are for a new season to begin.

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About Monte

For 20 seasons, I mostly wrote about NASCAR. I'm still paying attention, but I'm spending more of my time these days writing novels and songs. I try to blog regularly on whatever happens to strike my fancy.
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7 Responses to Great Is Established; Greatest Is Premature

  1. Mary says:

    Whether or not Jimmie Johnson is the greatest driver ever will be debated for a long time. What will not be debated is the fact that the more his greatness is lauded, the more he is disliked, even hated. There are 42 other drivers running the race. Each one has fans. You cannot imagine the animosity created among fans and drivers when the talking heads and print media talk and write so glowingly about this one driver as if the others matter not. It would be to his advantage if the media cut the hype over Johnson and commented more about the race itself.

  2. Andy DeNardi says:

    I watched the race although I didn’t think I would. How can any sports fan pass up the opportunity to watch one of the greatest ever at the peak of his talent?

  3. Carol Dahlberg says:

    Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was talking about next season after being asked about it immediately after the race. So it begins….

  4. John Irby says:

    There are sports mysteries, such as QB’s passer rating (and how it’s calculated). Also, the Chase, which makes old fans like me wonder why NASCAR decided to dilute the meaning of their first 26 races (including the Daytona 500). But that said, Johnson & Knaus are the premier players in the Chase format.

  5. Sal says:

    JJ and Chad are without a doubt the greatest of all time or ever will be 10 race champions. No one can dispute that. The talent and chemistry on that team is frighteningly consistent.

  6. Dan says:

    Wow Mary you hit the nail on the head. Already it’s getting old hearing how great Johnson is and it’s only been 2 days since the end of the season. The media is way off course on this. Can’t believe the other drivers won’t get tired of it also. Too bad Johnson’s going to take the heat. It’s certainly not his fault. He just happens to be the guy driving the best race car for the best team over the last several years.

  7. Al Torney says:

    Greatness like beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

Comments are closed.