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Jimmie Johnson's greatness unquestioned and underappreciated

DAYTONA BEACH

Think hard. Try to recall a time when every seat had a spectator, and every team was flush with funds. When Dale Jarrett was young enough to have a ride, and Joey Logano was not old enough to have his license. Think back to a time when racing fans were more interested in a beer garden than a tea party.

For that's how long Jimmie Johnson has ruled the NASCAR world. Cars, rules, teams, surfaces, and drivers have all changed. And still Johnson sits on top. He has been dominant, and he has had to come from behind. His list of wins is longer, and his consistency is unmatched.

No matter how you dissect, twist or spin the numbers, there is no debating Johnson has become one of the greatest performers in stock car history. Is he better than Richard Petty? Than Dale Earnhardt? Than every other legend? I wouldn't go that far. But what he has accomplished the past five years puts him in a conversation with just a handful of other names.

"You can't compare history when you're talking about sports," Jeff Gordon said. "What you can say is Jimmie and his guys are resetting the standard."

And the new standard is this:

Five consecutive Sprint Cup championships.

Write it off as a quirk of the Chase format. Dismiss it as a product of a rich owner and a shrewd crew chief. Belittle it any way you wish. Just understand that no one rules a sport for five consecutive seasons by luck or circumstance.

Do you know the last player to the lead the NBA in scoring five years in a row? Guy named Michael Jordan. The last player to lead the NFL in rushing for five consecutive seasons? Jim Brown. The last American League player with five batting titles in succession? Ty Cobb.

In other words, it only happens with the very best. The elite. The all-timers. You might not think Johnson is better than Bill Elliott or Darrell Waltrip or Cale Yarborough, but you have to admit he is excelling in this era in ways no driver has before.

"He's still underrated," Mark Martin said. "I think it still hasn't sunk in on us what Jimmie and Hendrick Motorsports and (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) have been able to accomplish, and I don't think that will fully soak in for quite some time. It may be after his driving career is behind him that the rest of us get the full meaning of what they've accomplished."

Think of how long five years can be in a sport. How much things can change, and how many opportunities there are to stumble. Johnson might not have dominated any Sprint Cup season the way Petty did in 1971, or Earnhardt in '87 or Gordon in '98, but there is no way you can say he has taken a shortcut to immortality.

True, he has won with consistency but he has also run out in front more than any other driver. Johnson has 35 wins the past five seasons. The next-best total during that time is Kyle Busch with 17. And, yes, your math is correct. Johnson has twice as many wins as anyone else.

And while some people have suggested that the 10 tracks on the Chase schedule are all conducive to Johnson's strengths, the truth is he has won races at nearly 73 percent of the tracks on the schedule in the past five years.

Even last season, when his team was less impressive than ever before, Johnson drove better down the stretch. He was trailing Denny Hamlin by 33 points heading into the final two races before finishing fifth and second, while Hamlin was 12th and 14th. The turning point was in Phoenix when Hamlin had the best car, but did not manage his fuel supply as well, and was forced to pit in the final laps.

"Flat out, I feel like we performed better. We just didn't execute as good, if that makes any sense at all," Hamlin said. "The 48 (Johnson) performed good, obviously, and executed and capitalized on us and the 29's (Kevin Harvick's) mistakes.

"I don't think they won the championship as much as we lost it."

The question now is how much more can Johnson do? Earnhardt and Petty hold the NASCAR record with seven career championships, and Johnson is ahead of their pace. Petty was 37 when he won his fifth title. Earnhardt was 40. Johnson is 35.

When it was mentioned to Tony Stewart that media members covering NASCAR had chosen Johnson as the favorite for the 2011 championship in a poll, he reacted with mock horror.

"You're kidding me? Somebody really went out on a limb with that one," Stewart said, before turning serious. "When a guy has done it five times, what basis would you have to bet against him? You wouldn't do it in any other sport unless something is different that you physically can see. And nobody has seen anything yet that proves he's not on track to do it again."

Johnson's pursuit of Earnhardt's and Petty's record should make fascinating theater in the coming years, but it will not make or break his legacy. What he has accomplished the past five seasons is already enough to secure his place in NASCAR history.

"If it all ended today, there'd be no emptiness," Johnson said. "It's been one hell of a run."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

No fluke, any way you look at it

Want to know how to win five consecutive NASCAR championships? Run as consistently as Jimmie Johnson has since 2006. Here are the top five drivers in wins, top 5 finishes and top 10 finishes during that time.

WINS

1. Jimmie Johnson35

2. Kyle Busch17

3. Denny Hamlin16

4. Tony Stewart15

5. Carl Edwards14

Top 5's

1. Jimmie Johnson81

2. Jeff Gordon75

3. Denny Hamlin61

4. Tony Stewart60

5. Kyle Busch57

Top 10's

1. Jimmie Johnson117

2. Jeff Gordon109

3. Tony Stewart98

4. Carl Edwards95

5. Denny Hamlin94

Jimmie Johnson's greatness unquestioned and underappreciated 02/16/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 3:32pm]

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