November 16, 2008 9:40 pm EDT

Three with an asterisk?
By Jerry Bonkowski, Yahoo Sports

Jimmie Johnson has won three titles in the Chase era. (AP)
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – With all that went into winning a third consecutive Sprint Cup championship, you have to give Jimmie Johnson a lot of credit.

But will history and long-time traditionalist race fans do the same?

That's a chapter that remains to be written in the legacy that Johnson will leave once he retires from the sport, whenever that comes.

But you can't dispute the significance of winning three championships in any sport. It's a major achievement, an accomplishment that won't be easily forgotten.

Look at the NBA's Chicago Bulls. They three-peated twice in the 1990s. Fifty years from now, folks will still be talking about what Michael Jordan and his Jordanaires supporting cast achieved.

Johnson's third consecutive Cup title elevates him into one of NASCAR's most elite classes, joining Cale Yarborough as one of the only two drivers in the sport's history to go back-to-back-to-back.

That it took another 30 years after Yarborough's reign for anyone to equal such an elusive mark says a lot about the weight of what Johnson did not only this season, but also over the three-year span. During that time he has been unquestionably the No. 1 driver in the sport.

When it comes to the NASCAR's biggest records, a three-peat stands in the same exclusive echelon as the seven career Cup championships won by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

But will Johnson's three-peat, done in the Chase era, be given its due respect?

In winning his three straight titles, Yarborough didn't have to go through the Chase format. He had to be great from the start of each season and carry that greatness through three consecutive 30-race schedules.

During that 90-race span, Yarborough won 28 races – nearly one-third. He also had 70 top-five finishes.

Johnson's three-peat span covered 108 races, of which he won 22 – or less than one-fourth. He also had 48 top-five finishes – not even one-half.

While still outstanding numbers in their own right, Johnson's math falls short of equaling what Yarborough did in his three-year run. This is why I can't help but listen to the long-time race fans who were around when Yarborough did his thing. They make a strong argument that Cale had it much harder.

While I'm not underselling Johnson's achievement, by default his became almost a formulaic way to win the championship: He needed to be the best of the best for only the last 10 races of each 36-race season. He didn't have to race every one of the first 26 as if it was his last. He had to qualify for the Chase and take it from there.

Yarborough, on the other hand, had to be on his game from race No. 1. Every race mattered, every race counted and every race was a mini-championship within itself.

While the Chase has served to add a bit of contrived spice and excitement during the part of the season that goes head-to-head with the NFL, it also has alienated scores of fans who have left the sport because of it.

Many point out that the Chase has cost Jeff Gordon two more championships – and that it will forever keep him from tying or surpassing Petty and Earnhardt's career championships record.

Others say Kyle Busch might have won this year's championship if the points had not been reset. (Actually, Busch would not have won the title even under the old points system).

Trust me, I am very happy for Johnson. He did what he needed to do, when he needed to do it most, and I can't help but admire him for it.

But it's still hard to ignore so many fans and their sentiments, and many of them are ardent Johnson fans. But comparing the way Yarborough did what he did to how Johnson won his three straight is comparing apples to oranges.

When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season home run record in 1961, an asterisk – either real or imagined – followed Maris' achievement for the remainder of his life until Mark McGwire and then Barry Bonds eclipsed it.

While Johnson's three-peat may be compared to Jordan's Bulls, is his legacy also destined to leave him as NASCAR's Roger Maris – complete with asterisk?

"I guess there's always opinions and people drawing parallels to different things, but all 43 guys had a shot at each championship from '06, '07 and '08," Johnson said. "I guess we'll have to see over time if what we've done is easy or not with the Chase format. Only time will show."

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Updated on Sunday, Nov 16, 2008 9:40 pm, EST

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