Johnson's 6 pack a great moment but no guarantee for #7
“I don't know how anybody could possibly say he's not the best ever.” - Matt Kenseth
“The whole group is just so good... specifically the 48. They just have a chemistry and away to make incredible things happen.” - Jeff Gordon
“He's been under-appreciated for a really long time.” - Dale Earnhardt Jr
“There's no doubt he's capable of winning seven, eight, nine.” - Brad Keselowski
For all the superlatives being applied to Jimmie Johnson's six pack of Sprint Cup championships, perhaps the biggest compliments come from those who race against him. While some fans complain about how his titles were won or the points system that Johnson has mastered, Jimmie just keeps racking up trophies. The entire #48 team should be proud of their accomplishments and celebrate doing what has never been done before. Yet they should also be mindful that NASCAR is a sport where nothing is guaranteed; no matter how dominant a team or driver may look, every championship may well be their last. One needs look no further than the last two such dominant teams to see how quickly that dominance can be taken away. The only question now is whether Johnson is on the precipice of NASCAR immortality- or of having his own era cut short.
Jimmie Johnson post-race interview from NASCAR Victory Lane on FS1
With his sixth Sprint Cup championship, Johnson has entered rarefied air. He's won six of the last eight series championships, something that has never been done before. Only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt (with seven apiece) have won more titles over their entire careers; it took Petty 16 years to win title number six while Earnhardt did it in his 15th full season. Johnson has 12 full seasons under his belt. He's younger than both Petty and Earnhardt were when winning their sixth Cup championship. His prior streak of five consecutive championships is unmatched in the history of the sport. Prior to that streak, the longest string of titles wins came in 1976-78 when Cale Yarborough won three straight. His wins can be legitimately compared to other sports; the only runs that come close would be the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 70's (four Super Bowls in six years), the UCLA Bruins seven straight championships between 1967 and 1973, and the Boston Celtics under Red Auerbach (13 league championships with eight consecutive titles between 1959 to 1966).
Yet while Johnson's accomplishments are impressive, he's not the first driver to dominate the sport. The most polarizing and most beloved driver in NASCAR's last 30 years has to be Dale Earnhardt Sr. Senior is still the only driver to win Rookie of the Year and a Winston/Sprint Cup championship in back to back years. His run between 1986 and 1994 was perhaps the longest run of sustained excellence the sport ever saw prior to Johnson. During those nine years, Earnhardt won six series championships. He led nearly 20% of the laps run and won 48 races. Aside from 1992 (where he finished 12th), Earnhardt finished no lower than third in series points. At 44 years of age, Dale was the embodiment of dominance on the track and in the garage. It seemed only a matter of time before he would break the tie with Richard Petty in total series championships.
It wasn't to be. Earnhardt never again won a title before his life was cut short in the 2001 Daytona 500. He finished second in points twice during his final six seasons, including an incredible points battle with the young upstart Jeff Gordon in 1995. The rivalry between “The Intimidator” and “Wonderboy” launched NASCAR to a level of popularity it had never known before- but it was a rivalry that Gordon ultimately won when measured by Cup hardware. Without the arrival of Gordon there's no question that Earnhardt would have surpassed Petty by two, perhaps three championships.
Jeff Gordon championship diecast from Amazon
Gordon was simply unstoppable. The 1995 season started a four year run that is still perhaps the best in the history of the sport. Between 1995 and 1998, Gordon took home three Winston Cup titles and finished second in his non-title year. He won 40 of 127 races to go with his 86 top five finishes. He also had 98 top ten finishes (an average of 77%). His wins were no fluke; Gordon led an average of 31.37% of the laps run over those four years and qualified on the pole 21 times. The #24 car started up front and choked the life out of the field on a weekly basis. Fans and colleagues had every reason to believe that his run of success would continue into the 2000s.
It didn't happen. His 1999 season saw Gordon pile up seven DNFs to go with his seven wins. He fell to sixth in series points in large part due to his inability to finish races. He also found himself leading a far fewer laps; the 14% was still impressive but a less than half of what he averaged a few years ago. The following year long time crew chief Ray Evernham left to form his own race team and Robbie Loomis took over atop the #24 pit box. The pairing won six races and Gordon's fourth series championship but it was the last one for Gordon. In the 12 seasons since, Gordon has 30 wins and 159 top five finishes in 432 races. His average finish is 13.12 (compared to 8.58 during the 1995-98 run) and his average laps led percentage is down to 6.94%.
A number of different factors that no one anticipated led to Gordon's decline. The most obvious was the change in leadership. Gordon and Evernham had a unique chemistry that provided Jeff with cars that outclassed the competition- including the famed “T-Rex” car that NASCAR told the team to never bring back again. No matter how good Loomis or the other chiefs have been, they aren't Ray Evernham and it shows. Second, Gordon simply hasn't been good enough at the intermediate tracks that make up NASCAR's playoff system. The Chase for the Sprint Cup that NASCAR instituted in 2004 put a premium on how a driver finished the season. No matter how good the #24 team was over the regular season, their points position got wiped away come September. This likely cost Gordon at least one and likely two more championships (2004 and 2007).
Perhaps the biggest thing that no one saw coming save Gordon himself was the challenge from within. It was at Gordon's insistence that Hendrick Motorsports signed a then-unknown Jimmie Johnson and convinced sponsor Lowe's to go with the rookie. Johnson began his rookie season by driving the same chassis that carried Gordon to his fourth title the year before; Gordon himself took new, untested cars off the Hendrick assembly line and struggled. Johnson finished that first year with three wins and a fifth place standing in season points. Over the next three years, Johnson averaged five wins, 13 top fives and a third place finish in final points. By 2005, the writing was on the wall and Johnson was the clear #1 at Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon has never recovered the momentum he willingly gave to his teammate.
Now it is Johnson who finds himself at the top of the mountain, a seemingly unbeatable colossus destined to stand alone with eight Sprint Cup championships. After watching the #48 team do it again, they have every reason to be confident that the years ahead will bring the same kind of success that they've had in the past. But if the examples of Gordon and Earnhardt show anything it's that no driver is unbeatable. No matter how many races you've won or titles you've claimed, the future remains impossible to predict. Any number of NASCAR's next generation of drivers could prove to be the one to dethrone today's champ. Whether it's a car sharing their shop space or a relative unknown finally given a chance at the sport's highest level, the “next big thing” may well be only a season away.
So Jimmie should soak in the moment of a sixth NASCAR title. He's earned it. And when the next race comes, remember that it's all up for grabs once again. There's a stairway to seven awaiting both he and Chad Knaus. What's yet to be seen is whether they will ever have the chance to climb it.