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, 2008By Marty Smith | ESPN.com
AP 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.
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."
AP PhotoCale Yarborough won his three Cup titles between 1976 and 1978.
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