Jimmie Johnson – The Greatest of All Time?
The White Flag waves for Jimmie Johnson as the seven-time Cup Series Champion is set to make one last turn around the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit as a full-time driver. Even in amassing 83 race wins and matching legends Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for most titles in the sport’s history, the case can be made that the driver of the No. 48 does not garner the credit he deserves amongst race fans.
It’s time to admit that Johnson could very well not only be the greatest driver in NASCAR history, but one of the best athletes across all professional sports. Everyone knows the basic statistical facts about the California-native. It’s now time to put the Team Hendrick driver’s 19-year career successes into context.
Johnson’s stretch of seven included five in a row between 2006 and 2010. No driver – let alone professional franchise in any sport – will ever do that again. All of these titles were won during some of the most unique, transitional eras in NASCAR history.
Each season, Johnson and the No. 48 team were forced to adapt to new car body styles, points systems, playoff formats and schedule configurations. Through all of this, Johnson was still able to win seven championships in an 11-year span.
The now 43-year old driver won titles with three generations of stock cars, four different body styles and over five unique rules packages. Imagine if the NFL changed the size of its standard football, the air pressure of the ball or the size of the field, four times in the span of one decade. You likely wouldn’t see current dynasties such as Tom Brady and the Patriots matching the likes of Johnson in such an era.
The Team Chevy driver’s first championship season in 2006 was won when NASCAR exclusively ran the small-bodied Generation 4 stock cars, which it began using in 1992.
Johnson’s second title in 2007 was run with a mix of (primarily) these same bodies, along with several races that introduced a new, radically different Generation 5 car. The safety-focused Generation-5 Car of Tomorrow bodies were known for their wide splitters and large wings on the back of the cars. This car model brought upon the most dominant stretch of Johnson’s career and one of the most dominant eras that any driver has had in NASCAR history.
The sport switched to the Car of Tomorrow full-time in 2008, marking Johnson’s third straight championship and his third consecutive year having won it in differing stock car accommodations, spanning two different body styles.
Johnson’s dominance in the Car of Tomorrow led to such a competitive gap in NASCAR’s top series that the sanctioning body was inclined to tweak the Gen-5 stock car, the rules system, the playoff format and the race schedule following the conclusion of the 2010 season that culminated in the driver’s fifth-straight championship.
This body style lasted only three years (2008-10) in the sport’s premier series, in which the No. 48 team won all three Cup Series title. In the three years (108 points races) where NASCAR ran the Car of Tomorrow, Johnson won 20 races and led 5,512 laps, which was five more wins and 1,411 more laps led than any other driver.
Between 2011 and 2012, NASCAR ran a modified version of the Generation 5 stock car that did not include the same splitter and rear-wing cosmetics. While Johnson didn’t add to his title totals in that two-year span, he was able to add an additional seven wins to his resume.
In 2013, NASCAR made the switch to its Generation-6 stock car which had manufacturer-unique body panels and designs that more closely resembled the cars found in local showrooms. On cue, Johnson rang in the new era winning his sixth NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Entering the 2016 season, NASCAR made slight modifications to the car, shortening the rear spoiler by 2.5 inches, adding a 0.25-inch front leading splitter edge and a 33-inch-wide radiator pan. These changes were enforced to lower the downforce of the cars, adding more grip, which would encourage more passing and closer competition.
Sure enough, these changes resulted in the No. 48 driver’s seventh Cup Series championship and his fourth with a different stock car body style.
In addition to conforming to new stock car body styles and aerodynamic packages on an almost yearly basis, NASCAR has also adjusted its playoff format four times throughout Johnson’s reign.
His first title came with the sport’s original “Chase for the Cup” format, which reset the top-10 drivers in the point standings after 26 regular season races for a 10-race playoff-like shootout, that the series has used since 2004.
Beginning in 2007, NASCAR modified this format to include the top 10 drivers in the regular season standings and granted 10 bonus points for each win accumulated during the regular season once the points reset for the final 10 races. This Chase format remained from 2007 through 2010, spanning Johnson’s second, third, fourth and fifth Championships. He was the only driver to win a title under this format.
Between 2011 and 2013, the sport’s sanctioning body changed this format to include the top 10 drivers in the regular season standings, with two wild cards for a total of 12 Chase drivers. Eligible drivers would begin this Chase format with three bonus points for every regular season win accumulated. Johnson won his sixth Championship in 2013, marking the final year of this format.
Beginning in 2014, NASCAR moved to an elimination-style format for its Chase for the Cup, that it still uses to this day. This expanded the playoff field to 16 drivers and rounds were implemented. Every three races during the 10-race playoff, the bottom four drivers in the standings were cut until the field is composed of only four drivers entering the final Championship race. Johnson won his final Cup Series championship in 2016, marking the fourth different playoff format for the No. 48 team to have won a title in.
NASCAR introduced a “Stage Racing” format in 2017 to the 16-driver postseason format, which was renamed from the “Chase for the Cup,” to the “NASCAR Playoffs.” Johnson has yet to win a championship under the stage racing format.
In addition to winning championships under four different postseason formats, the Hendrick Motorsports driver spread his seven championships across four different postseason schedules.
After Johnson won his first three consecutive championships under the same playoff schedule between 2006-08, NASCAR subtracted Atlanta Motor Speedway from the Chase and added Auto Club Speedway from 2009-10. Between September 2007 and February 2010, Johnson won four out of six races at the Fontana, California-based track, prompting NASCAR to remove it from the postseason schedule following the No. 48 team’s fifth-consecutive Cup championship in 2010.
In place of the two-mile track, the playoff schedule was adjusted by leading off the postseason with Chicagoland Speedway – one of only three active tracks that Johnson has not won at.
Nonetheless, the No. 48 team still managed to persevere in 2013.
The following year, the 10-race circuit was changed again when the “Round of 12” slate included Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, along with Talladega Superspeedway – which remained the same. Johnson went on to conquer this playoff schedule en route to his seventh Cup Series championship in 2016, marking the fourth different playoff reconfiguration he had to adapt to.
Finally, Johnson spread his seven titles across four different points scoring systems.
The first five from 2006-10 were won under the longstanding “Equal Points Per Race” system that the league had used since 1975. His first championship was won when the first place finisher in a given race was awarded a minimum of 180 points.
The following year, NASCAR used this same points system, but elevated the minimum amount of points for a first place finisher to 185. After Johnson won his fifth straight championship in 2010, the sanctioning body did away with the long-standing points format, separating each position on track by exactly one point and awarding the race winner with a minimum of 47 points – capping that total at 48 when the race-winner leads the most laps.
Johnson won his sixth Cup Series championship in 2013 under this format.
Lastly, in 2016 the number of cars permitted in each race was reduced to 40, so the points system was modified to reflect this change, allowing for a maximum point total of 45 for the race winner. Under this format that NASCAR still uses, the Playoff Championship 4 do not earn bonus points in the championship-deciding season finale.
The No. 48 team won its seventh championship under this format, making for the fourth title victory under another different scoring format.
In addition to having to conform to so many different rules packages, the 43-year old has also had to go up against some of the sports all-time greatest stars, adapting to various different generations of Cup Series drivers. From fending off the likes of his mentor, four-time champion, Jeff Gordon, to Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano – Johnson made his reign in one of the most competitive eras in NASCAR history.
Each one of these championship runs had its own unique buzz. Between dueling it out with one of the all-time greats in 2006, to capping off dominant seasons in 2007-10, to having to overcome adversity and assume the underdog role in 2013 and 2016, Johnson has had an incredible run in the Cup series.
The bottom line is that NASCAR literally had to adjust the entire sport multiple times to aid in giving a competitive edge to drivers aside from Johnson and the No. 48 crew. That is simply unheard of across other professional sporting leagues.
No driver in NASCAR history – let alone any other professional sports athlete – has displayed this profound ability to adapt to so many radical, sport-wide changes, while continuing to thrive on an almost yearly basis; all while managing to win a record amount of championships at the sport’s highest level.
It is highly unlikely the sport will ever see another seven-time champion, as well as another driver to win five-consecutive titles.
In addition to his uncontested conformability to any and all circumstances – perhaps above all else – Johnson has always operated himself with the highest of class at all times. Through victory and defeat, the Team Chevy driver has always maintained his signature, humble and accountable demeanor, serving as one of the most graceful ambassadors in NASCAR history.
Johnson’s unparalleled list of achievements, can perhaps partially be attributed to the core values that link him with his long-time primary sponsor, Lowe’s. “Never stop improving,” is the motto coined by the home improvement company that sponsored the No. 48 team for each of Johnson’s first 17 full-time season competing in the Cup Series.
Whether it be in the context of a last place finish, or a fifth consecutive championship, Johnson and the No. 48 team have always been synonymous with this saying “never stop improving.” This mentality is part of what fueled the driver and the team; one of the most powerful dynasties in pro sports history.
The 43-year old driver is set to cap off his full-time racing career after two decades in the sport’s premier level. It’s time to start embracing Jimmie Johnson—his character, his place in the history books, his achievements and acknowledging his title as quite possibly the greatest driver in NASCAR history.
The driver of the No. 48 will have one more shot at becoming the only driver in NASCAR’s history with eight championships – and what a way that would be to go out after 20 seasons, in the year 2020.
While he is still in search of his first win in two seasons and missed the Playoffs for the first time in his full-time career in 2019, you can never really count someone like Jimmie Johnson out.
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