HOMESTEAD, Fla. — It’s time to call Jimmie Johnson what he is: The best driver in NASCAR history.
It’s a title bound to rankle fans of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, but Johnson is now worthy of superlatives only bestowed upon the two NASCAR legends after his record-tying seventh Sprint Cup Series championship.
Yeah, Johnson benefited from a late crash triggered by Carl Edwards and Joey Logano and led just the final three laps of the race to win at Homestead-Miami Speedway and get his seventh title. But every legend needs a little bit of circumstance. It’s how a legend performs in those circumstances that makes it legendary.
“Just didn’t think the race was unfolding for us like we needed to do to be the champs, but we just kept our heads in the game,” Johnson said of the myriad adjustments his team tried throughout the race’s 268 laps. “[Crew chief Chad Knaus] called a great strategy, made some great adjustments for the short runs. Luck came our way and we were able to win the race and win the championship.”
Jeff Gordon, who is listed as the owner of Johnson’s car, had this to say about his former teammate: “Jimmie had the most incredible moves and restarts at the end when it counted most and that is why those guys are seven time champions and proved it again tonight.”
Petty offered up congratulations to Johnson in a statement after the race.
“[Johnson and team] set a goal to get where they are and circumstances and fate made it a reality,” part of the original seven-time champion’s statement said. “They did what they needed to do and now they are at seven championships. Congratulations to him and his team.”
Comparing the accomplishments of Earnhardt and Petty to Johnson is almost impossible. Earnhardt and Petty’s seven championships apiece came in an era where there was no playoff format. The driver who accumulated the most points in a season won the title.
But Johnson’s accomplishments are greater than theirs, even if you believe the Chase format isn’t the best way for NASCAR to determine a champion.
Sunday night’s win was the 80th of Johnson’s career. With 543 starts, it means Johnson has won once every seven races. Earnhardt won 76 races in 676 starts, a rate of a win in every nine starts. Petty has the best win rate. His 200 wins came in 1,184 starts, roughly once every six races.
But both Petty and Earnhardt raced in an era where it was common to win races by a lap over the rest of the field. That’s unheard of in modern NASCAR given the closeness of competition between the sport’s top teams.
Johnson has also had to deal with changing championship variables, too. His first Chase championship in 2006 came in a season where 10 drivers made the playoffs. His next four – all consecutive from 2007-2010 – came with 12 drivers racing over the final 10 races for the title.
In 2013, he won his sixth championship in a points format that was changed after his fifth-straight title. A year after that, NASCAR changed the Chase completely to include the current four-driver winner-take-all finale that Johnson came through in Sunday night.
After 2013, it was easy to joke that NASCAR attempted to “Jimmie-proof” the Chase. After Sunday’s race, there’s no Jimmie-proofing anything. The No. 48 bunch can adapt to whatever NASCAR throws its way.
“To see him tie Richard and Dale, it is just unbelievable,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “I’m still in shock. I think it will sink in later tonight. But we are so proud of him. To do it through all these different formats is so special.”
And that’s why it isn’t hyperbole to consider Johnson and Knaus the best driver-crew chief pairing in NASCAR history, too. Knaus is now one championship short of the record of eight held by Dale Inman, who crew chiefed Petty to his seven titles.
Every great driver needs a great wingman, and Knaus has proven he’s one of the best in history, even if there was some internal discussion at HMS this summer during the No. 48’s swoon if the pairing should be split up.
“It has been an awesome, awesome journey but it has been a very trying season,” Knaus said. “We’ve had a lot of good things. We have had some difficulties along the way. But to be able to be where we are at today with Lowe’s, one team, one driver, one crew chief, one sponsor … to be able to win all seven championships is just awesome.”
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