Commentary

Jimmie Johnson among the best ever

Updated: November 27, 2010, 3:23 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

You make history long enough, you begin to understand your place in it. That's where Jimmie Johnson is now.

He understands that monumental achievement is appreciated by the masses only in retrospect. While it's happening, they largely reject it.

"In the moment, I think it's tough for fans to look at what we have accomplished, because they want their guy to win, and I understand that," he said in immediate aftermath of a fifth straight championship that will be far better recognized maybe 30 years from now.

Somehow, outside NASCAR, he strikes more awe than inside it. But he understands that what his No. 48 team has wrought "is respected sports-wide, not just in our little bubble we live in, but sports-wide."

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Rusty Jarrett/NASCAR/Getty ImagesThey don't call Jimmie Johnson "Five-Time" for nothing.

ESPN researchers already have him in an elite table of dynasties sports-wide, of all time, who have won five or more championships in a row: New York Yankees, five world championships, 1949-53; Montreal Canadiens, five Stanley Cups, 1956-60; Michael Schumacher, five Formula One titles, 2000-04; UCLA, seven NCAA men's basketball championships, 1967-73; Boston Celtics, eight NBA titles, 1959-66.

But from inside the bubble of NASCAR Nation now begins the grousing by the naysayers who swear that nobody will ever be as great as ol' Dale or The King.

Yes, he will.

Already he is crowding them. Already he has done what neither Dale Earnhardt nor Richard Petty could, for even with their seven championships each, neither ever won more than two Cups in a row.

And don't start about the format, about the Chase versus the old way Earnhardt and Petty won theirs. Neither ever went into September with 11 other drivers on their heels in the points. Even in a season-long format, neither ever faced nearly the sheer numbers of competitive teams that Johnson has.

It took Petty 655 starts to reach his fifth championship. It took Earnhardt 390. Jimmie Johnson is here, after only 367 starts.

At age 35, he has raced at the Cup level for nine seasons. Nine more at this pace would give him 106 wins, passing David Pearson's 105 for second all time, and 10 championships, the most ever, by far.

It took 30 years for somebody -- Johnson -- to equal Cale Yarborough's long-standing record of three Cup titles in a row.

And it took that same 30 years for Yarborough's achievement to be thoroughly appreciated by NASCAR's following, while Johnson was chasing the record.

While Yarborough was three-peating, 1976-77-78, there was incessant grumbling that he was spoiling the whole NASCAR show. "ABC" was the fans' mantra: "Anybody But Cale."

Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, expects that "finally -- FINALLY" recognition and appreciation will come now.

"I think it's definitely going to give Jimmie some of the praise that he needs for the type of driver that he is -- a fantastic driver, and really has not gotten the praise that he deserves," Knaus said.

"No disrespect to any of our elders or whatever you want to call them, the guys that raced back in the day," Knaus said, "the Earnhardts, the Waltrips, the Pearsons, guys like that. You hear a lot about the tenacity of those drivers and how aggressive they were and how they could do things with the race car that nobody else could do."

I think if you really sat back and looked at what this guy can do with a race car, you would be pretty impressed. He's been in some pretty precarious situations and driven through them. He's put his nose in places that other people would not be able to pull off.

-- Chad Knaus on Jimmie Johnson

And now Knaus asked something of the NASCAR masses that few have done.

"I think if you really sat back and looked at what this guy can do with a race car, you would be pretty impressed. He's been in some pretty precarious situations and driven through them. He's put his nose in places that other people would not be able to pull off."

That, almost verbatim, is what was said of Earnhardt in his prime. And Earnhardt was deemed by the masses to have taken NASCAR to major league status.

For Johnson, on the other hand, not a day went by last week in Greater Miami that he wasn't asked if his dominance has been hurting NASCAR, hurting the TV ratings, creating a malaise among fans.

At one point he sought some recent historical perspective, the history of the Chase, since 2004.

"When this started, everyone said it was because of Matt Kenseth running away [under the old full-season points format] in 2003.

"So if we're going to try to blame someone, we can pick someone. I can be that guy if everybody wants me to be that guy. But I think the problem was there before I came."

Kevin Harvick, who started the "somebody else needs to win" drumbeat a few weeks ago, admitted during the Homestead-Miami weekend that there were underlying reasons why he said it.

"You beat your head against the wall and wonder, 'Why can't we be competitive enough -- why can't the whole sport be good enough -- to keep somebody from winning four in a row?"

And now it's five, and it's not at all that NASCAR isn't competitive, it's just that Johnson and the 48 team rise above -- like all dynasties in all sports.

Havick and Denny Hamlin took the 48 team deep into the season finale, made them earn it, but in the end, "We beat 'em," Knaus said. "We beat 'em good."

But what, you wonder, will keep Johnson from waiting 30 years or so to be held in the highest regard by the NASCAR masses?

I'm guessing an eight-peat. A seven-peat wouldn't quite do it, because the naysayers would point out that Johnson only tied ol' Dale and The King, and didn't do it fair and square, just by that gimmick called the Chase.

Eight in a row. Maybe that would get their attention.

So Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team still have work to do, to be roundly recognized for greatness.

The unjust part is, they're already great.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.

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