This past weekend, NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson won his sixth Sprint Cup championship to put him just one title behind two of the sport’s most legendary drivers.
There are some who don’t believe drivers in this sport, which, of course, has its deepest roots in the southern Appalachians, should be granted the same status as athletes as in other sports such as football or basketball.
We aren’t among those critics.
Johnson, who grew up in El Cajon, Calif., was a water polo player, a swimmer and a diver in high school. We think the reflexes and stamina needed to muscle almost 2 tons of car around a track for 500 or 600 miles at a sitting at speeds topping 200 mph are indeed the stuff of athletes.
Johnson now lives in North Carolina with his wife and two daughters.
“I have six, and we’ll see if I can get seven,” Johnson said Sunday after finishing ninth at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida, easily ensuring he won the season points title.
But the question to him was: Is he as good as the greats who won seven titles, Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt?
“Time will tell. I think we need to save the argument. Let’s wait until I hang up the helmet until we really start thinking about this,” said the 38-year-old Johnson.
Johnson won a record five straight titles from 2006 through 2010. He ended his personal two-year drought on Sunday. He has a good chance to tie or even beat the records of Petty and Earnhardt, since Johnson is the youngest of the three to win six titles, besting Petty to that number by almost three months.
Petty and Earnhardt, it could be said, were from different eras. Like baseball or football, it’s hard to compare the performance of an athlete today to one from the past.
And to a degree that problem of comparisons between eras is a measure of NASCAR’s success. Stock car racing has changed dramatically over the past few decades, with more sponsors with deeper pockets spending more cash to make the sport even more competitive.
Even the cars have changed.
We think the overall quality of drivers also has improved, matching the financial outlay of the teams that are competing today.
The winner of Sunday’s race agrees.
“Unfortunately, we’re racing during the Jimmie Johnson era,” said driver Denny Hamlin. “We’re just unlucky in that sense. I think being out there and racing with him, I can say he’s the best that there ever was. He’s racing against competition that is tougher than this sport’s ever seen.”
Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus, who deserves a lot of credit for the team’s success, said of his driver: “He is an amazing talent, there’s no doubt about it. He can do things with a race car that most mortals can’t. Let’s just be straight with it.”
Most mortals aren’t like Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt, either.
Were those two better than Johnson? Can we compare NASCAR today to the way it was when Petty and Earnhardt dominated?
Those are questions we can’t answer. Not yet, anyway.
We’ll just have to see what Jimmie Johnson has in store for us in the future.
We’re just going to enjoy the ride.