Jimmie Johnson is good. Real good.
But not as good as you think.
Already, Johnson is a historic figure in NASCAR. Certainly he became one when he won his first Sprint Cup championship. Anybody would. But once he locked down three in a row a la Cale Yarborough, Johnson found residence somewhere in NASCAR’s ether.
And now, as he gets set to win at Martinsville yet again — c’mon he’s won six of the last seven races there, so you know he’s winning again today — he will continue his coronation procession to an unprecedented fourth straight title. No doubt, Johnson is great. And the modern-era torch has successfully been passed from Earnhardt to Gordon to Johnson.
Or has it?
Recently, CBSsports.com crunched the numbers to see what revisionist NASCAR history would look like. And the numbers would substantially change history’s outlook on at least four drivers.
What CBSsports.com did was calculate the cumulative NASCAR standings for each of the last six seasons, including 2009 — throwing out the Chase for the Cup concept.
And under the old rules — rules that NASCAR felt were just fine for nearly 50 years before sagging television ratings coerced the powers that be to radically change the way the sport crowns a champion — greatness is revealed in a very different way. To wit:
Jeff Gordon should be making his drive for seven — and to a very different place in the sport Taking away the Chase format, Gordon would have two more championships to his credit, giving him six in his career. He would have won his fifth title in the Chase’s first year, 2004, beating out Johnson by a smooth 47 points rather than finishing third behind champion Kurt Busch and Johnson.
Gordon would have devastated the sport in 2007, where he would’ve ridden his modern-era record 30 top-10 finishes in 36 races to a sixth championship by a staggering 353 points over Johnson. Instead, Johnson’s four Chase wins allowed him to win the title by 77 points over Gordon.
Under the traditional system, Gordon would be even more revered — and likely even more reviled — but well ahead of Johnson in the conversation as one of NASCAR’s top drivers of all time…
Johnson would still be a champion, but not a record-setter Given the old rules, Johnson would have one title in his career — in 2006, the year he won his first championship. Under the old rules, Johnson would’ve cleared the field by four whole points, barely edging Matt Kenseth. Instead, he won by a comfortable 56 points over Kenseth.
Johnson would still have his 45 wins on the circuit and that title, but would he be held in the same regard as he’ll be held at Homestead this year? No freaking way…
Carl Edwards would be a champion Edwards would likely be viewed very differently — and so would all of Roush-Fenway Racing — had his 16-point championship run over Johnson been the real deal in 2008. Alas, Edwards finished 69 points behind Johnson in the Chase…
Tony Stewart would be reaching legendary status Stewart still would’ve won his 2005 championship, albeit by a much more convincing 215 points over Greg Biffle than the 35-point margin the Chase afforded him. But Stewart, not Johnson, would be the one cruising to a championship this season.
With a 117-point lead over Johnson heading into Martinsville, Stewart would likely be working on securing his third championship, moving him past such notables as Ned Jarrett, Buck Baker, Herb Thomas and Terry Labonte, and into an echelon that would include Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and David Pearson…
Kurt Busch would be just another guy Definitely not a NASCAR champion, not after finishing fourth — FOURTH! — behind Gordon in 2004…
So does the Chase work? Sure it does. At least three of the past five seasons would have been decided with at least 10 races to go under the traditional format. Boring, right?
But NASCAR, in its Chase for the Cash, has sacrificed its true history to manufacture a very different one.
Jimmie Johnson is a very good driver with a very good team.
But he’s no Jeff Gordon. Or Cale Yarborough. Or David Pearson. Or Tony Stewart.
At this stage in his career, he’s more like Rusty Wallace.
Big difference. But one that won’t be so clear in the history books.