- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Richard Petty leaned back in a chair before Sunday's Sprint Cup finale just as he did here a year ago when he insisted a driver had to be in the sport more than seven years and win more than three championships to be considered among the best ever.
So, the King of NASCAR was asked on this hot, humid day: Will his opinion change with Jimmie Johnson winning a record four straight?
One didn't have to see behind those signature dark sunglasses to know Petty wasn't about to crown Johnson as King II.
"All of us played our game in our time," said the sport's all-time race winner with 200 checkered flags and the man tied with Dale Earnhardt for most titles with seven. "Jimmie is playing his game, in his time, against his competition. Right now he is head and shoulders above the competition."
But is he the best ever?
Too early too tell, Petty repeatedly said. So did Mark Martin after finishing second in points to the driver he calls "Superman."
"It's very difficult when it's happening to make a statement," Martin said. "I don't want to pin myself or any of my old-timers by making statements now. Just let it play out. He's not done yet."
He's likely right. Johnson shows no signs of letting up, and there's no reason to think he will.
And while what Petty and Martin say is sound logically, many will spend time around the water cooler on Monday trying to put the four-peat into perspective.
Some already have.
Former Sprint Cup champion Dale Jarrett tried to earlier in the week when asked if four straight Cup titles paralleled to Tiger Woods winning four majors in a year.
"I said, 'Yeah, if he does it three more years,'" said the 1999 champion, now an analyst for ESPN. "That's how incredible it is. Maybe that's taking it a little to the extreme, but it's close."
The feat Johnson completed at Homestead-Miami Speedway should go down as one of the greatest accomplishments in sports, not just NASCAR. Many outside of Petty and Martin agree it already elevates Johnson to the level of Petty, Earnhardt and David Pearson, typically considered the top three drivers in the sport's history.
"You definitely have to put him there now," said Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr. "He was already there before. Four in a row, man! Why can't they go for five? That team is that good."
And the most amazing part of all this is Johnson has been in the top series only eight years.
ESPN analyst Ray Evernham, who won three championships in four seasons (1995, '97, '98) as the crew chief for four-time champion Jeff Gordon, was reminded of that by Johnson in a prerace feature.
"I was, 'My God, eight years from now we may be talking about the greatest driver ever,' " Evernham said.
We may be talking about the greatest now, although Johnson's final place in history won't be written for at least another decade.
"Oh, yeah," said Cale Yarborough, the only other driver to win three titles in a row (1976-78). "No doubt about it. He is still young. He's got a long ways to go. I'm sure he's going to break some more records down the road."
He's never finished worse than fifth in the standings and has an unbelievable winning percentage of 16.1 percent.
"He's in such a different class than everybody else," said Bill Elliott, the 1988 Cup champion. "It's like David and Goliath."
Bobby Allison said Yarborough's feat of winning three in a row was "ridiculous."
"Competition is so good that nobody should get three in a row," the 1983 Cup champion said. "To come on and get a fourth in a row, it's phenomenal."
Winning four straight titles here arguably is tougher than doing that in any other sport because of all the variables. Beyond the performance of the driver and the team, there are mechanical issues and 42 other teams that can end your day at any moment.
"The hardest thing in pro sports is to consistently be there," said Joe Gibbs Racing owner Joe Gibbs, who won four Super Bowls as coach of the Washington Redskins. "It's hard year in and year out to put things together,
particularly in our sport."
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus not only are consistent, they raise the bar every time another team gets close to them. They're like Michael Jordan when the heat was on in the NBA Finals or Joe Montana when he needed a winning touchdown.
"I don't know that I can put that in perspective because I don't think we've seen anything like this in NASCAR," Evernham said.
We may never see it again. That Johnson has done this in an era of supposed parity and in a system that many agree is tougher than the old point structure that didn't have a 10-race playoff is even more impressive.
"I would love to sit here and say like a lot of the old guys it was always a lot tougher when we did it," Evernham said. "Well, that's not true. It's a lot tougher now. You used to have to walk a tightrope to stay on the edge and now it's a razor blade. It's very difficult."
He's in such a different class than everybody else. It's like David and Goliath.
”-- Bill Elliott
Richard Childress, who won six championships with Earnhardt, said what Johnson has done is "just unheard of."
"Nobody ever dreamed of that," he said.
Had somebody told Jeff Burton this was possible four years ago he would have called them crazy.
"To win four in a row, I didn't think anybody would be able to that," he said. "Never in 100 years did I think somebody would be able to do that."
It's mind-boggling what Johnson has achieved. Beyond the titles, he's won more races (47) and had more top-5s (117) than anybody since arriving in the series in 2002.
"We're going to look back 20 or 30 years from now and say, 'They were incredible,' " former HMS teammate Brian Vickers said.
Gordon, like Burton, never thought he'd see it done.
"It's absolutely incredible and it's something that I don't know if I'll see in my lifetime ever happening again," he said. "But they've shown that it's possible and they've also shown just how good they are, and that's why they're where they're at. It's quite a feat."
Gordon should know. During his roll during which he finished first, second, first and first, he won an unbelievable 40 races. Were it not for the 37-point differential between him and then-teammate Terry Labonte in 1996 he would have won four in a row.
Evernham doesn't see Johnson's streak ending unless he gets burned out or starts to lose key people, starting with Knaus.
"It takes so much to do this," he said. "Every time you do it, every single time you do it, when you climb off that box on Sunday, you climb out of that car, you go to get on that airplane to come home, you leave a little piece of you behind.
"There comes a point where there's nothing else to give. Those guys have found a formula to pace themselves to get more."
The formula starts with team owner Rick Hendrick, who has found a way to keep the core group of Johnson's team intact.
"They've all been offered other opportunities to go other places," Jarrett said. "It's great to see they haven't let dollars and other things stay in their way."
Johnson doesn't know exactly where he stacks up in history, but he believes it has to be "near the top."
"And the cool thing is we're not done yet," he said.
No, that's the scary thing if you're not a member of the 48 team.
Just don't ask Petty to call Johnson the greatest ever, at least not for a few more years.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Even with four straight Sprint Cup titles in tow, it's too early to anoint Jimmie Johnson as the best driver in NASCAR history. And if he wins a fifth? Well, all bets are off.