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Would Jimmie Johnson's three-peat in Sprint Cup be more impressive than Cale Yarborough's? It's debatable

In this case, the checkered flag was only the beginning.

It was Nov. 19, 1978, in a race that no longer exists on a track that has been replaced by a furniture store. The end of that Los Angeles Times 500 on a Sunday afternoon actually meant the beginning of another, far more intriguing, race that has crossed miles, technology and generations.

This race has involved wannabes and has-beens. An assortment of legends, and many of the forgettables who competed alongside them. This race has continued while a sport has grown, adapted and struck gold around it.

And now today, 30 years later, the race is finally coming to an end.

Jimmie Johnson is about to catch up to Cale Yarborough. He is about to win his third consecutive NASCAR season championship, ending a three-decade chase to match the standard Yarborough set at the end of that '78 season in Ontario, Calif.

It is, no doubt, a remarkable achievement. And, as it turns out, also a debatable one.

Are you impressed with Johnson's three-peat or annoyed by the circumstances in which it was attained? Do you believe old-timers who suggest Yarborough's was a more difficult accomplishment, or are you convinced that is simply a rewrite of history through the fuzzy lens of nostalgia?

Naturally, there is no correct answer. The fan over here believes Yarborough was twice the driver Johnson is today. And the fan over there believes Johnson would have excelled no matter which year was on the calendar. And the beauty of the argument is that both fans could make legitimate points.

You want to diminish Johnson's accomplishments? You could bring up the Chase for the Championship, the 10-race postseason that has turned the season championship into a sprint instead of a marathon.

In each of the past three seasons, Johnson has been behind other drivers when the Chase has gotten under way. He trailed Matt Kenseth in 2006, and he was behind three drivers in '07 and two this season.

Had the traditional scoring system still been in place, Johnson would not have won the title in '07 and his lead on Carl Edwards would have been 56 points today instead of 141.

So, yes, the Johnson critics have a point.

You want to diminish Yar­borough's accomplishments? You could bring up the lack of parity in the 1970s. During the time Yarborough was winning his three season championships, he was competing against racing royalty such as Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip and David Pearson. But, realistically, they were the only legitimate threats to win for most of the season.

Only a handful of teams entered all 30 races, giving Yarborough a tiny field of realistic competitors. Pearson actually had more wins (10) than Yar­borough (9) in 1976 and skipped eight races along the way.

Another way to look at it: In 1976-78, only 11 drivers won races. In 2006-08, 20 drivers have won.

So, yes, the Yarborough critics have a point.

Furthermore, you could argue the physical demands Yarborough had with larger cars, no power steering and hotter safety suits. Or you could argue the sponsorship demands that take up so much time in Johnson's era.

You could argue Yarborough had the benefit of one of racing's greatest minds with owner Junior Johnson. Or you could argue Jimmie Johnson has the benefit of the deep pockets and shared resources of Rick Hendrick's teams.

Basically, what the argument comes down to is personalities. And that appears to be where Johnson has the most difficulty gaining ground. You see, Yarborough has one and Johnson does not.

Yarborough was the very definition of the old NASCAR charm. Tough, colorful and unafraid to speak his mind. Johnson is the absolute picture of the new NASCAR corporation. Clean-cut, bland and politically correct.

For some, favoring Yar­borough might be a way to protect their memories of stock car racing from long ago. The sport was simpler then, and maybe their lives were, too.

For others, favoring Johnson might be a way to feel more connected to racing today. There is a feeling of watching history unfold every time Johnson steers his car on to the track.

The point is nobody is completely right and nobody is completely wrong when it comes to judging which three-peat is more impressive than the other. For the first time in 30 years, we simply have a choice.

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

Would Jimmie Johnson's three-peat in Sprint Cup be more impressive than Cale Yarborough's? It's debatable 11/15/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 15, 2008 8:31pm]

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