Jimmie Johnson has announced that this will be his last season as a full time NASCAR driver on the Stock Car circuit. How will he be remembered? Is he in the discussion as the greatest stock car driver of all time? We’ll go over his record, and then try to evaluate his placement.
Jimmie came to the Cup Series from the American Speed Association series, where in two years he won two races for Herzog Motor Sports. In 1998 he was given a part-time ride in the Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series) by ST Motorsports for the next two racing seasons. He became a full time driver in the Busch Series in 2000 and 2001, winning only once before his sponsor, ST Motorsports, decided to leave the Series.
Without a ride, Johnson approached Jeff Gordon about what to do next. Gordon drove for Hendrick Motorsports, one of the powerhouse teams in the sport, and advised Johnson the Hendrick’s Team was considering running a fourth car. With Gordon’s backing Johnson got the seat.
Jimmie was 25 years old when he participated in his first Cup race in 2001, and 26 when he went full time in 2002. His rise in the sport was rapid and dominating. He won three races in both 2002 and 2003, then dominated the CUP Series beginning in 2004, winning eight races and finishing second to Kurt Busch in the Cup Standings, followed by a fourth place finish in 2005. After that it was lights out for the rest of the field. For the next five seasons Johnson would win 35 races and all five Cup Championships. Nobody before or since has won five championships in a row. He would win two more titles in 2013 and 2016, making his total seven, which is tied for most all-time with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
This does sound like a resume that might be the best, but is it?
Here’s a list of drivers with the most career wins and Cup Championships:
- Richard Petty: 200 Wins, 7 Championships
- David Pearson: 105 Wins, 3 Championships
- Jeff Gordon: 93 Wins, 4 Championships
- Darrell Waltrip: 84 Wins, 3 Championships
- Bobby Allison: 84 Wins, 1 Championship
- Jimmie Johnson: 83 Wins, 7 Championships
- Cale Yarborough: 83 Wins, 3 Championships
- Dale Earnhardt: 76 Wins, 7 Championships
- Kyle Busch 56 Wins 2 Championships
- Rusty Wallace: 55 Wins, 1 Championship
- Lee Petty: 54 Wins, 3 Championships
The Number 1 Driver of all-time is pretty obvious when looking at this list. Richard Petty is the number 1 NASCAR driver of all time. After Petty, the order gets a bit murkier, and where does Jimmie Johnson fall. The driver with the most Cup Championships is Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson with 7.
Let’s do his easiest comp first, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon.
Gordon is four years older than Johnson, but earned his first NASCAR ride at age 20, and became a full-time driver at 21. He was full time for 23 seasons. Johnson is currently participating in his 19th, and last, full time season. Gordon has 10 more wins, but Johnson has 3 more championships. It comes down to how much weight we give to championships.
As we mentioned in a previous article, the Race for the Cup has changed radically over the years. In Petty’s and Earnhardt’s seven championship seasons the points accumulated were the same for all the races run. The driver who had the highest cumulative score won the Cup. This is also true for the four won by Gordon prior to the initial change in 2004. If the old format were in place for all of Gordon’s and Johnson’s careers, Gordon would have matched Petty and Earnhardt with seven (winning in 2004, 2007, 2014), and Johnson would have been reduced to five (not winning in 2007, 2008, 2016, but adding a championship in 2012).
How do we at A Sip of Sports sort through this? We think total races won is the most important stat, followed by Cup Championships won prior to 2004. We don’t give much credit to winning the Cup since the change to the “Race for the Cup” format. The gimmick format regularly doesn’t reward the best drivers. As of now Johnson would still be ranked below Gordon.
He would also be ranked below Petty, Pearson, and Earnhardt, but ahead of Waltrip, Bobby Allison, and Yarborough as the greatest race car driver of all time. Placing him 5th on the All-Time list.
Jimmie Johnson tested positive for the Corona virus, and will probably miss two races. That gives him 17 more races to improve his standing.
Top 10 greatest NASCAR Drivers of All Time:
- Richard Petty
- Jeff Gordon
- Dale Earnhardt
- David Pearson
- Jimmie Johnson
- Darrell Waltrip
- Cale Yarborough
- Bobby Allison
- Lee Petty
- Kyle Busch