The Chase Has Altered the Perception of Jimmie Johnson

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by Ryan Isley

This has become somewhat of a coronation week for Jimmie Johnson as he heads to Homestead-Miami Speedway with a 28-point lead over Matt Kenseth and a 34-point lead over Kevin Harvick. The 38-year-old is looking for his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in eight seasons after winning five straight from 2006 to 2010 and looks like a lock to make it happen.

As this is happening, there are plenty of people already looking forward to 2014 when Johnson will have a chance to tie “The King” Richard Petty and “The Intimidator” Dale Earnhardt for the most championships won at NASCAR’s highest level. But maybe it is time to take a step back when comparing Johnson to those legends.

There is the obvious reason – the cars that NASCAR drivers are handling today are easier to drive than the cars of yesteryear that were driven by the likes of Petty, Earnhardt, Junior Johnson and Cale Yarborough, to name a few.

And then of course there is the big change that was made to NASCAR following the 2003 season that has altered the championship race.

Following that 2003 season (one in which Kenseth won the championship), NASCAR introduced “The Chase for the Nextel Cup” (now The Chase for the Sprint Cup) into the end of the season starting in 2004, with the final 10 races of the NASCAR season becoming a playoff for drivers who had qualified through the season’s first 26 races. It was under this new Chase system that Johnson has won all five – and soon to be all six – of his NASCAR Sprint Cup titles. What most people don’t realize is that if not for the Chase, we wouldn’t be talking about Johnson in any sort of historical context. We would actually be talking about his teammate, Jeff Gordon, who would already have six championships.

Had NASCAR limited their changes to only fixing the points system, Johnson would be going after only his third championship this weekend. He would be doing so with a 41-point lead over Harvick and would basically need to just start the race to wrap up the championship for the season.

Without the Chase, Johnson would have still won the championship in 2006 and 2009, but he would have finished second in 2007 (Gordon would have won), 2008 (Carl Edwards) and 2010 (Harvick), third in 2012 (Brad Keselowski) and fourth (Edwards) in 2011. Meanwhile, Gordon would have added 2004 and 2007 to his championships from 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001.

However, the Chase has completely changed the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, with five of the nine seasons entering 2013 having a different winner than they would have without the Chase. Because of that, Johnson is gunning for title number six and will enter next season with a chance to put his name beside Petty and Earnhardt with his seventh championship.

But is that fair?

For starters, this is only the 12th full-time season for Johnson in the Sprint Cup Series, compared to 35 for Petty and 22 for Earnhardt.

While Petty was obviously not competitive when it comes to the championship for some of those years – especially at the end – it is impossible to ignore the 24-year stretch he had from 1960 to 1983. Those seasons produced Petty’s seven championships and he finished in the top-5 in the Sprint Cup standings 21 times. In fact, he finished in the top-3 in 14 of 18 seasons from 1962 to 1979.

As for Earnhardt, his 22 seasons would have been more if not for the terrible accident that took his life in the 2001 Daytona 500. In a 12-season span from 1986 to 1997, Earnhardt finished in the top-5 11 times and won six of his seven championships. Johnson’s current stretch is actually comparable to what Earnhardt did in those years from 1986 to 1997, as he has finished in the top-5 in 11 of the last 12 seasons and in the top-3 in eight of the last 10 seasons, including this season. But again – without The Chase, Johnson finishes fourth in 2011.

When it comes to wins, Petty still sets the standard with 200 wins in his 1,184 races (16.9 percent) and finished in the top-5 555 times (46.8 percent). Earnhardt won 76 times in his 676 races (11.2 percent) and finished in the top-5 in 281 of them (41.6 percent). We will never know how many wins Earnhardt would have finished with, as he won five times combined in 1999 and 2000. Johnson has won 66 times so far in his 434 races (15.2 percent) and has finished top-5 182 times (41.9 percent).

While those winning percentages don’t look much different, consider this: in the 18-season span from 1962 to 1979, Petty won 145 of the 653 races he entered – an astounding 22.2 percent. In Earnhardt’s 11-year stretch from 1986 to 1996, he won 55 of his 326 races, a clip of 16.8 percent.

Here is another problem – if there is no Chase and Gordon is the one who is chasing history, we really couldn’t put him on the same level with Petty or Earnhardt, either. Gordon would have never had a stretch of finishes that rivals Petty or even Earnhardt and Johnson. Plus, while Petty has 21 finishes in the top-5, Earnhardt has 14 and Johnson will add his 11th this season, Gordon has finished in the top-5 in the Sprint Cup standing just 10 times in his 20 full-time seasons before 2013, with a slim chance to add an 11th top-5 this season.

And while Gordon’s 88 wins are the third-most in Sprint Cup history and are more than both Earnhardt and Johnson, his winning percentage is three percentage points lower than Johnson’s and less than one percentage point higher than Earnhardt’s. As for Petty? Gordon still trails Petty by 4.8 percent when it comes to winning.

It is difficult to compare different eras in sports, as there are always so many different variables to consider but when it comes to NASCAR, Petty and Earnhardt still sit at the top of the mountain. So remember next season when people are comparing Johnson to Petty and Earnhardt – he might have a chance to tie them with seven championships, but let’s hold off on calling him the best of all-time.

At least for now. We can always revisit this discussion in 7 to 10 years.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at ryan@morethanafan.net. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.