- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Let's pretend the economy isn't so bad, you want to start a new Sprint Cup team and you can have your choice of Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards or Kyle Busch, the drivers who won 24 of 36 races this past season.
You've done your homework and figured out who would be best from all aspects -- performance, marketing and representing your company in the best possible way.
And no, you can't have Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Who would it be?
Johnson, 33, is the obvious choice. He's won the past three championships for Hendrick Motorsports and his 40 wins over the past seven seasons is more than anybody on the circuit. He's unbelievably polished and a solid spokesman for his sponsors, although his critics say his personality is a bit vanilla.
Edwards, 29, is coming off a career season, leading the series in wins (nine), top-5s (19) and top-10s (27) en route to a second-place finish in the standings. He's got the Hollywood look that has him on the cover of magazines such as Men's Fitness and he can do a spectacular backflip from the door of his car. He also stirs up a bit of controversy from time to time for bonus attention. (See the Kevin Harvick shoving match at Lowe's Motor Speedway.)
Busch, 23, also is coming off a career season with eight wins in Cup and 21 between the top three series. He has that "bad boy" image that attracts many fans and a daring style on the track that has many comparing him to the late Dale Earnhardt. He's a bit unpolished as a spokesperson, but he's young enough that that could be forgiven.
So who would you pick?
Figuring current owners would be a bit biased toward their own drivers, it seemed more appropriate to check with a couple of past owners who are more than qualified.
"I'd want Kyle Busch," Junior Johnson says. "I like his hell-bent driving style. Jimmie's been here six or seven years. Kyle's real fresh. He's got to dig through extra stuff to get where sponsors come to him, but he's going to get there.
"When you find a young lad like him, so determined to win, you've got a long-term future with him."
Johnson should know. He caught lightning in a bottle with Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip, who, from 1976 to 1985, made him the envy of every owner.
"All three of them are great race car drivers," Junior Johnson says. "But if I had to go with one of them I'd take Kyle Busch because he's younger. He's going to do what he needs to do. You've just got to polish him a little.
"But for the next 10 or 12 years you've got a great race car driver."
"I'd have to pick Kyle Busch," he says. "He's so young and so good. He's going to bring sponsors. I know Jimmie has been winning championships and all, but Kyle Busch has a great future ahead of him."
This isn't a knock on Edwards or Jimmie Johnson. It's simply a hypothetical situation, no different than picking between Joe Montana, Brett Favre and Dan Marino if you are starting an NFL team.
And if all things were equal -- if Busch, Johnson and Edwards were
the same age -- that would influence the vote.
"You're pinning me to the wall now," Yarborough says. "If they were all the same age, I'd have to go with Jimmie Johnson. He's getting the job done now and would continue to get it done later, too."
Ditto, says Junior Johnson.
"No question then I'd take Jimmie Johnson," he says. "He's more settled in and determined as far as having a good race team. He's a helluva race car driver. He is not going out there slam-banging and running sideways and all that stuff to win a race, tearing up his car or blowing engines.
"He takes care of his car, and when the time comes to win he's as good or better than anybody on the track. But all things aren't equal, so I'll take Kyle."
Hypothetically picking a driver is no different than picking a franchise quarterback, point guard or pitcher. The biggest difference between doing this in NASCAR versus almost any other sport is the marketing.
The San Francisco 49ers didn't care if Montana could sell toothpaste or cereal as long as he showed up on time for games and won. It's the same for most professional athletes.
But in NASCAR, particularly the premier series, you've got to have an image that fits your sponsor and helps sell products.
So somebody from marketing or promotions might not be as quick to pick Busch as an owner who is more interested in on-track performance.
Ken Cohn, the vice president of Millsport Motorsports, understands. His company represents clients looking for athletes who fit their image. He's neutral, with no allegiance to a certain driver or team.
Earlier this year, before Jimmie Johnson became the first driver since Yarborough (1976 to 1978) to win three straight titles, the company launched what it calls a Motorsports DBI (Davie Brown Index).
The data collected from fans scores drivers in seven categories -- appeal, notice, trendsetting, influence, trust, endorsements and aspiration. In terms of average attribute ranking, Earnhardt Jr. ranked first in every category.
But again, NASCAR's most popular driver isn't a part of this hypothetical situation.
Johnson is, and he ranked second. Neither Edwards nor Busch ranked in the top 10 overall, although Edwards did make the top 10 in appeal, trendsetting and influence.
Cohn acknowledges Edwards and Busch are likely to make a big move forward when the next survey is complete to include this past season. He also believes Johnson's numbers will improve, so from a marketing standpoint that's the driver he'd most recommend.
"Obviously there are a lot of unknowns," Cohn says. "But in general, Jimmie is an incredible solid choice when you consider his No. 2 average score."
Mark Dyer, the president and CEO of Motorsports Authentics, also leans toward Johnson. He noted Johnson has inched closer in merchandise sales to the top three -- Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart -- while Edwards and Busch are still working toward the top five.
"Jimmie's championship sales are up over 40 percent over last year," Dyer says. "Fans are responding."
Dyer had only one stipulation when selecting between the three.
"Do you get to take Chad Knaus with you?" he says of the only crew chief with three straight titles. "It's a tough question all the way around, but Jimmie is at the peak of his career. This team shows no signs of being satisfied."
Not everybody in the business of selling the sport agrees. Eddie Gossage, the president of Texas Motor Speedway, would take Johnson hands down if he were an owner. As a promoter he'd go with Busch or Edwards.
"It's a toss-up between Kyle and Carl," he says. "Kyle is wonderful because he makes waves and he doesn't care. Carl has this personality that is just so professional outside of the car. He's polished. He also has just a little bit of a danger element to him that I like."
Again, that's not a knock on Johnson.
"Jimmie is a great guy," Gossage continues. "He's the kind of guy you want to hang out with. But he comes across to the public as a much safer and reserved type of character. As a promoter you like a bit of danger hanging in the background all the time."
Yarborough laughed. Given the choice to throw Earnhardt Sr., David Pearson, Waltrip and himself into the mix with Johnson, Busch and Edwards, he says, "Who do you think I'd say it would be?"
"Absolutely," he says. "I'd blow the doors off those guys."
Junior Johnson wasn't given the option of taking himself. He simply had Earnhardt Sr., Pearson and Waltrip thrown into the equation.
"Dale Earnhardt for sure," he says. "He was probably the all-time greatest driver. There's a lot of people that say there's been better, and he was just the best at his place and time, but I'd have to have Dale. He was just unforgiving when it came time to win."
Johnson, Edwards and Busch aren't so bad with wins on the line, either. On average, Johnson wins every 6.3 races, compared to 9.8 for Edwards and 12.5 for Busch.
They'll be the odds-on picks to challenge for wins and the title again next year as well. Fortunately for team owners Rick Hendrick (Johnson), Jack Roush (Edwards) and Joe Gibbs (Busch), their drivers aren't available under any real or hypothetical situation.
But if they were?
"I always knew me and Junior [Johnson] thought a lot alike," Yarborough says, reiterating Busch would be his guy. "That's why we were so successful together."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.