Where Johnson ends up among NASCAR greats yet to be determined

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Before fireworks began exploding over Homestead-Miami Speedway early Sunday evening, before the stage where the crystal championship trophy was presented could be anchored near the start-finish line, the question already begged to be answered:

Where does Jimmie Johnson rank among NASCAR's all-time greats after becoming the first driver in 30 years to win three consecutive Sprint Cup titles?

"That put a big star beside his name to win three in a row," said Richard Petty, tied with Dale Earnhardt for the most titles with seven. "Just to win three period is big. Three in a row?

"If he comes back and wins four in a row, he gets a big star."

Johnson wrapped up the title by finishing 15th in the finale on a picture-perfect night in South Florida. He moved into an elite category that only two can claim.

"I'm just excited that what I've done has led people to talk about me with those other names," the 33-year-old Johnson said last week after all but clinching the title in Phoenix.

Most in the garage, past and present, agree Johnson's feat automatically vaults him into NASCAR's top 10 of all time. Some dare to compare him with the greatest of all time, saying a much deeper field makes winning today tougher than ever.

"I've been thinking about that lately," NASCAR chairman Brian France said recently. "Given how difficult it is to win one in the modern era, it might put him at the top of the list."

Ray Evernham said Johnson's accomplishment may be more impressive than the three titles ('95, '97, '98) he won in four seasons as Jeff Gordon's crew chief.

"He can't be denied that spot as one of the greatest," he said.

Three titles in a row definitely give Johnson a place in history that can't be denied. Only Cale Yarborough (1976-78) has done it before.

"That's like being the second guy on the moon," said Petty's son, Kyle. "It may not be the biggest thing, but, by god, you're still standing on the moon."

Johnson is standing in pretty rare air these days. His 40 wins in 254 races put him ahead of Petty (32), David Pearson (38), Bobby Allison (32), Yarborough (28) and Earnhardt (26) after the same number of events, and have him even with three-time champion Darrell Waltrip.

Only Gordon (52) had more.

Johnson has finished in the top 10 61.4 percent of the time, putting him on the same pace as Earnhardt (63.3), Gordon (61.9), Allison (62.1) and Petty (60.1).

In his first seven seasons, Johnson hasn't finished outside the top five in points and only twice has he been outside the top two. With a little luck he could be staring at five straight titles.

"Top 10 [all time] for sure," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who considers himself a NASCAR history buff. "If he could sustain it over his career and run like he's running over the next five years, he will be considered widely as one of the best. ''

Former Cup driver Jimmy Spencer, now a commentator for Speed, said Johnson has to win on a road course and improve his performance at restrictor-plate tracks to move into the elite category.

"Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt, they consistently won on all kinds of courses," he said. "That's pretty impressive."

But Spencer has no problem putting Johnson in the top 10.

"He doesn't have the wins some of those other guys have, but the competition level is a lot different than it was 15 years ago," he said. "Fifteen years ago, there were five or six cars that could win races. Now there's 10 to 12. There's a lot to be said about that."

Where Johnson winds up in history likely won't be determined until he's near the end of his career. The magic he seems to have now could disappear as fast as it came.

Gordon, for example, hasn't won a title since 2001 and is winless this season.

"I don't feel like you ever really get your true respect while you're doing it," Gordon said. "It comes years later. And while I think Jimmie is going to go down as one of the all-time greats in our sport, I don't know if anybody is ready to give him that much credit and respect right now.

"And that happens for all of us, even for me. Until you go through some tough times and you go through the ups and downs, I don't think you ever really earn that full respect within the garage area and the media or the fans."

Gordon understands what Johnson is going through. People began comparing him to the all-time greats, particularly Earnhardt, after he won his second championship.

And because he grew up a fan of IndyCar racing and not NASCAR, Gordon didn't appreciate the comparisons like he does now.

That's like being the second guy on the moon. It may not be the biggest thing, but, by god, you're still standing on the moon.

-- Kyle Petty on Jimmie Johnson's three-peat

"Being one of the greatest in this sport, that wasn't something I aspired to do," he said. "NASCAR was not even on my radar. Then you get to know people like Pearson and Petty, and you realize they're just regular people, too. They're just living the dream like I am."

The difference between then and now, Gordon said, is drivers are being measured against athletes from other sports and not just their peers.

"Today, you want to be recognized among professional athletes of all sports," he added. "You want to help the sport grow and continue to be at a high level that it is capable of being at. There's pressure to live up to that."

Johnson understands. He never imagined being a top Cup driver while racing motorcycles as a kid in California. He did little during his brief Nationwide Series career to indicate he was headed for stardom, either.

"Everybody has high hopes and everybody is confident in what they do, and I feel that I do a good job in that race car," Johnson said. "But to have it develop as it has, I couldn't dream that big, no."

But Johnson certainly appears comfortable in this role, even if he isn't ready to assess his place in NASCAR history.

"I'm very proud that what I've done and what this race team has done to put us in the situation to have people ask the question," he said. "That's a great byproduct of what we've been doing.

"So I'm excited about that and that the conversation has started. [But] I still have many, many years left of driving, so I don't think there is an answer."

Rusty Wallace, the 1989 Cup champion, has no doubt Johnson is one of the top drivers of all time.

"The only negative thing about Jimmie, the only negative thing about that three in a row, if he had a more dominating personality, if he was a confrontational personality if he had the personality like I had or Earnhardt had or Tony Stewart's, the three championships in a row would be monumental," he said.

Johnson has been called everything from vanilla to boring because of the way he handles himself on and off the track. That's something most of the all-time greats never were accused of being, many of them earning nicknames such as "King" (Petty), The Intimidator (Earnhardt) and Silver Fox (Pearson).

Johnson showed some signs of breaking out of that mold two weeks ago at Texas, saying, "I've spent my whole life, my whole career worrying about that crap, and it's done nothing but confuse people. So I'm just climbing in that car and doing my job and driving my ass off and taking it from there."

Wallace would like to see more of that side.

"He's kind of a quiet guy and he's happy about that," he said. "You listen to the way he speaks, the way he debriefs his team, he's very calculated, very good.

"I just wish I could see more of a rough edge to Jimmie. I wish he would say something to make me dislike him for a while."

Jeff Burton doesn't believe people will truly appreciate Johnson's greatness until he's finished driving.

"To win three in a row is huge," he said. "It's hard to rank people that you're competing against, but I certainly have the utmost respect for what they've been able to do.

"And where it puts them, I don't know, but certainly pretty high up there."

Even when he's done, unless he wins eight championships, there'll be no way to truly decide whether Johnson is better than Petty, Earnhardt or even Gordon any more than NFL fans can determine whether Brett Favre is better than Joe Montana or Terry Bradshaw.

"I don't think I have, or any driver, has the right to proclaim their spot in history," Johnson said. "That's not for that person to decide. That's for the fan base, the guys that have done it and are in that club and were accepted into that club.

"I don't comment about it because I'm 33 and still racing, and I don't feel like it's my spot to say those things. I also feel that I have a lot of years left in the car to really make my mark in the sport."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.