Commentary

Comparing three-peats kind of like comparing Chevy to Ford

Not since Cale Yarborough in the 1970s has anyone won three straight Cup titles. Assuming Jimmie Johnson avoids disaster Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway and joins Yarborough in that elite class, whose three-peat is more impressive?

Originally Published: November 12, 2008
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Jimmie JohnsonAP Photo/Jason BabyakJimmie Johnson will clinch his third consecutive Cup title by finishing 36th or better at Homestead.

So I'm in Miami for an entire week, packed enough clothing for an entire month.

And I forgot socks.

Maybe I just won't wear any all week, bring the Crockett and Tubbs vibe back to South Beach.

The Six ...

OK Marty,

So let's say Jimmie Johnson goes on and wins his third straight championship. We've all heard about Cale Yarborough doing it in the '70s. So I ask you: Which is more impressive? Jimmie's or Cale's?

-- Stephen Arnett, Little Rock, Ark.

To quote Rusty Wallace, Stephen, "That's a tough damn question to answer." It certainly is. It is wholly subjective. And bias based on place in time has a huge impact on one's answer. There may not even be an answer.

My immediate inclination was to say that Johnson's is more impressive, a rationale based largely on the fact that in today's NASCAR there are so many more cars that are capable of winning on any given Sunday than there were 30 years ago. When Yarborough pulled the three-peat, there weren't but a handful of cars that could win. In 2008, there are 20. Then there's the fact that not every team would run the full schedule back then, making points accumulation much easier for teams that did.

In fact, to be completely honest, had I not started making calls to legends, I wouldn't have given Yarborough his due. Not that I don't respect his ability or accomplishments. He's indisputably one of the five or six greatest drivers of all time. I grew up fully aware of Yarborough's legend. Every fan in the South did.

[+] EnlargeCale Yarborough
AP PhotoCale Yarborough won his three Cup titles between 1976 and 1978.

Plus, I knew about him long before I gave a damn about NASCAR. One of my favorite toys as a kid was a plastic No. 28 Hardee's car. Cale's car. That was in the mid-'80s, and I would drive it around the edge of the Pearisburg Town Pool for hours on end. Because of that I started to pay closer attention to him.

I loved his grit. He was tougher than woodpecker lips, stronger than ocean cable.

And if he told you to shut up, you shut up. He was the epitome of a bad boy. But were his three straight more impressive than what Johnson is about to accomplish? They're certainly different. Back then it was man versus machine in a physical capacity. It's now man versus machine in a technical capacity.

"I think you have break it down a little bit," said 1989 Cup champion Rusty Wallace. "When Cale won it all, it was tough, tough, tough -- no power steering, no air conditioner, long, 500-mile races with drum brakes. All the equipment was shoddy compared to now.

"There weren't no engineers, no aid, no help. It was man versus machine, like Brutus inside that car, damn near dying inside there. Physically it was much harder inside the car, a much harder atmosphere. Two-inch spoilers, man! So damn loose the thing almost rolled completely over! It was crazy back then, man!"

(I love Rusty. My boy gets fired up. It makes me chuckle.)

"Now, what Jimmie has done, in this intense competition, winning three straight is amazing. He's had to be really smart and technical to win nowadays, with all the pit-stop savvy and calculations that happen now. He has a great team and he's a great driver, but it was a lot harder physically to win back then. Because everything you were up against.

"You see photos of those guys, all pale and wore out and they'd get out of the car and beat the s--- out of each other. A number of drivers back then were huge. Cale's neck is the size of my leg. They were big ol' burly-ass men!"

So, dude. Whose title run is more impressive?

"I don't think it's fair to say this guy's better than that guy."

Fair enough. I tend to agree.

On to the next legend.

"I think Cale's is [more impressive], simply because if you go back and look at when Cale won his, there was more top-notch drivers than there are right now," Junior Johnson said. "When you run against Darrell and David Pearson and Fred Lorenzen and all them guys -- Cale ran against all them guys.

"He did it in the hardest time you could possibly do it. Not taking nothing away from Jimmie. Jimmie's good most of the time, but when we ran, times was harder, equipment wasn't as good, cars didn't drive as good. It's a different time and different place. In the era when Cale did it was a lot harder than it was for Jimmie to do his."

And here I thought the exact opposite. There was no doubt in my mind that there are more great drivers today, more competitive teams than there were then. I still believe that, but how the hell am I supposed to dispute Junior Johnson?

That's ridiculous. That's like trying to tell Bono he's off-key.

I need backup.

"I think what Jimmie's doing is more impressive -- and harder," said three-time champ Darrell Waltrip. "From the early '80s on, NASCAR has been trying hard to create parity to keep anybody from dominating. So the way I look at it, when Cale won three in a row he was competing against just the competition. You could be creative. There were not a lot of rules. You could just race, and the best car and team won.

"Today, not only do you race the competition, but NASCAR, too. Because NASCAR has stepped in, particularly with the Chase, and tried to create a level playing field. When you can dominate in a time when competition is this high, as high as it's ever been, and you can step up and still dominate everybody like that? That's far more impressive. My vote goes to Jimmie and Chad."

Door-To-Door
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"Cale Yarborough was quite an awesome driver -- and certainly Jimmie is, too," said Robert Yates, who was around to see both drivers win championships. "I don't know. I think they're both outstanding. Cale was a determined guy. Which guy contributed more? Well, Junior [Johnson's] was the best seat in the house. And Chad's is now. They're pretty equal and doing equal things. I'd give them all a triple-A. It's hard to pick one.

"I will say this -- if both seats were ready to go against each other, neither one of them would win three in a row. I'd bet money on that."

Yates' indecision isn't unique. Several folks struggled to commit fully one way or another.

"I've thought about this quite a bit, actually," said two-time Cup champion Ned Jarrett. "It's a tough decision. The reason why is, certainly there are more people today who are capable of winning the championship. So in that sense it's tougher now than it was back when Cale did it.

"But if you look at the difference in equipment, they didn't have the technology they have today. To be able to win a championship three years in a row was really remarkable because of the difference in equipment. I'm hedging one against the other. I'm sorry. It's hard for me to come out with a clear-cut answer. I wish I could be more definitive, but you can't be, really."

Maybe his son can assist.

"It's so hard to compare different eras, when people are trying to do special things in different times," said '99 champion Dale Jarrett. "Back when Cale did it, there were tough drivers and the cars weren't very good. They just worked hard, and he drove the hell out of it. I know it was difficult then, but I look at Jimmie's situation, and there's a lot more teams out there that can be competitive and make it more difficult for him. As impressed as I am with Cale's, I'm a little more impressed with Jimmie's."

Ultimately, it's an amazing feat. Winning three straight games in lunchtime hoops against a bunch of balding, middle-aged sales reps is hard to do, much less conquer a sport at its pinnacle. What does the King think about it?

"Jimmie is certainly on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats," Richard Petty said. "He is still writing his chapter, so we'll have to wait until he is done driving before we say 'OK, Jimmie is in the top five, or top three.'

"If he wins the championship this year he will have done something that has only been done once in the 60 years of NASCAR. There is no way you can discount that by not saying that it's one of the greatest achievements in our history.

"Trust me; I came close to winning three in a row and I can tell you it's not an easy thing to accomplish. The thing about Jimmie is that he is in his prime and he doesn't seem to be in jeopardy of losing key members of his team. Those guys have been together for a long time now, and if they can win their third title in a row this year they should be the team to beat again next year."

Scary.

Mart Dawg,

What, no song of the week?

-- Eric, Owego, N.Y.

Totally forgot last week, Eric. Lost my mind for a minute. This week's jam comes at the request of my buddy Blake: Colt Ford. "Ride Through the Country."

Marty,

It's time for NASCAR to change the Chase. It is awful. Jimmie Johnson has run off and hid and nobody cares anymore. My friends and I are huge NASCAR fans, so we'll still watch Sunday to see if Biffle or Kenseth (my driver) can win. But, man, it's no fun when the championship is already settled before the last race. NASCAR must do something.

-- Mike Hartley, Detroit

I can't help but laugh, Mike. Hard.

First of all, no Kenseth fan has any right to complain about any other driver running away with a championship. Matt Kenseth is the very reason for the Chase in the first place.

Second, settle down. The Chase is fine. The model works. Johnson's points lead this year is an anomaly, in my opinion. Carl Edwards' team has been every bit as good as the 48 during the final 10 races -- just had worse luck. Johnson has enjoyed very good fortune. He narrowly missed the "big one" at Talladega, and benefited tremendously from Edwards' electrical issue at Charlotte. Otherwise we'd have a barn burner this weekend.

Just because one season is a stinker doesn't mean you blow it up and start over.

Hey Marty,

Have you been to a Carino's Italian Grill lately? If so, did you happen to see Brad Coleman there? I think we need to file a missing-driver report with the authorities.

After supposedly taking over the No. 96 -- and giving up his Nationwide ride due to a manufacturer conflict -- I have heard absolutely nothing about him. I think he has a lot of potential in the right circumstances. That is if we can ever find him.

-- Mark, Mount Airy, Md.

Coleman's fortunes changed quickly, Mark. According to Hall of Fame Racing, Coleman is now a free agent. He is no longer under contract to Hall of Fame.

That's my time this week. Forgive the lack of questions. I'll make it up to you on the flip side. It's time to put on a tie and smile into the camera. I'm all over the place this week. Before I bail out, though, I want to thank all our troops. We appreciate all of you.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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