COMMENTARY | The driver formerly known as "Five Time" has now won his sixth career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship, and it has brought on the question of is Jimmie Johnson the greatest NASCAR driver ever?
The answer to that question is simply impossible to come up with.
NASCAR is far different from any of the other professional sport in the United States as the degree of difficulty fluctuates from season to season. I don't mean that NASCAR is by any means an easy sport to master, but the level of competition changes from week to week, season to season. People who experience the action of a race call it a "thrill ride." Well, a NASCAR season in and of itself is a roller-coaster ride full of ups and downs for every team.
The two other drivers that are in the argument for the greatest driver ever are Richard "The King" Petty and Dale "The Intimidator" Earnhardt. Both Petty and Earnhardt won seven championships in their days, and both were as dominant and the face of the sport on the national stage much like Johnson is today.
When Richard Petty ruled the NASCAR world, it was a completely different sport. The cars lacked the technical challenges that they have today and handles much differently. The tracks, while still in the same locations today, were much different back then and the way they were driven were much different than the way they are driven now.
The competition was different, as well. Back then, Petty had to deal with drivers named David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett, just to name a few. The styles were different and the aggression between drivers was immense compared to what it is today. In that era, Petty was by far the better driver.
As the Petty empire declined in the late-1970s, then began the rise of the next great NASCAR driver, Dale Earnhardt. Again, the cars were changing and drove much differently when Earnhardt roamed the land. As the cars evolved, so did the drivers and the level of competition changed.
Earnhardt had to deal with his own arch enemies on the track. Every Sunday afternoon, he battled it out with the likes of Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip and eventually a young hotshot named Jeff Gordon. To this day, NASCAR historians and fans alike reminisce about the battles Earnhardt had with his rivals.
While the Earnhardt era was ushered in right after the Petty era, there was a gap between the reign of "The Intimidator" and the new king of the sport, Jimmie Johnson. Earnhardt won his last championship back in 1994. It wasn't until five years after his death in 2001 did Johnson win his first title in 2006. Much like the two superstars before him, the sport had evolved by the time he made his way to the top.
No more were there names like Wallace and Waltrip. Nowadays, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth battle it out along with Johnson at the top of the leaderboard week in and week out. It's a different style of racing altogether. Between 1960 and the late-1990s, the racing was much more aggressive. The cars were much more solid, and you could beat and bang on each other all race long and still be going at 100 percent by the end of the race.
In our modern era, the cars are much more sensitive to damage as the aerodynamics of the car have been so technical that a fender getting pushed in by even a millimeter will throw off the handling of a race car. With the technical aspect of the sport growing, that means more cooks need to be in the kitchen to build a winning car. It used to be all about the skill of the driver, now combining brains with brawn is the only way to win a title.
It's not a knock on Johnson or his ability as a driver. He's earned the right to be in the discussion as he's now won six championships, including five straight between 2006 and 2010. It's simply not fair nor possible to compare drivers present to drivers past since the sport has grown and evolved so much. We simply won't be able to truly say who the greatest NASCAR driver ever is.
While he may never receive that title, it's certainly clear that we are in the midst of the third great reign of NASCAR. First, we had the reign of "The King", following that was the reign of "The Intimidator," and now we have the reign of Jimmie Johnson. All we need to do make Johnson's reign complete is give him a nickname as catchy as the other two.
Brian Skinnell is a contributor for RantSports.com and Yahoo Sports. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brian_Skinnell.
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