by Julian Spivey
One of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history – arguably the greatest of all-time – Jimmie Johnson is hanging up his NASCAR steering wheel following this weekend’s Cup Series season finale race in Phoenix.
Unfortunately, Johnson hasn’t received the fan-fare he’s deserved with his final season coming during a massive pandemic that has seen many races run without fans and the others with a much less capacity than normal.
If you’re a NASCAR fan you may never see Johnson on track again (though, I don’t believe he’s completely said no to a potential one-off race down the road), but if you’re a racing fan or a Jimmie Johnson fan wanting to see him behind the wheel he will be running a partial IndyCar Series schedule (only road and street course events) for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021.
To celebrate the future NASCAR Hall of Famer’s career here are the five greatest moments in Jimmie Johnson’s career:
5. First Career Win
A driver’s first career win is always going to be among the most memorable moments of their career, but Jimmie Johnson’s was probably more sweeter than most as it came in his home state of California at California Speedway in Fontana, Calif. in his rookie season of 2002. Johnson hadn’t had a stellar showing in the sport’s minor series, so it came as a surprise to some that Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon chose him to run the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports, but it didn’t take long for Johnson to prove naysayers wrong winning at Fontana in just his 13th race in the series. Johnson would go on to win two more races in his rookie year, but believe it or not that wasn’t enough for him to secure Rookie of the Year in the Cup Series, which went to Ryan Newman who won two fewer races and finished one spot in the point standings behind Johnson (a head scratcher for sure).
4. Career-Best Year of 2007
Since NASCAR’s modern era began in 1972 there have only been 10 drivers to win 10 or more races in a season and Jimmie Johnson is one of those drivers. His career-high of 10 wins in a season came in 2007, the second year of a five-straight year title run. Johnson clinched his 10th win of the year at Phoenix International Raceway in the season’s penultimate race. The win at Phoenix marked his fourth straight win that season as he thoroughly decimated the NASCAR playoff competition. Johnson also won races that year at Las Vegas, Atlanta (twice), Martinsville (twice), Richmond (twice), Fontana and Texas.
3. Two Daytona 500 Wins
The Super Bowl of NASCAR racing is the season-opening Daytona 500. It’s the event every driver feels they have to win and unfortunately some of the greatest in the sport’s history have found doing so to be elusive. Jimmie Johnson won the sport’s biggest race twice in his career. His first Daytona 500 win came in his first championship season of 2006 when he led 24 laps and the second Daytona 500 came in 2013, his sixth championship season, when he led 17 laps.
2. Seventh Championship Ties Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt
For the longest time there were two names at the top of NASCAR’s Greatest of All-Time mountain: Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Petty and Earnhardt each won seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, the most all-time in the sport. When NASCAR instituted a playoff system in the early 2000s it seemed winning seven titles would be harder than ever. Well, Jimmie Johnson and his future Hall of Fame crew chief Chad Knauss made doing so seem easier than ever by absolutely dominated the playoff system, even in different iterations of the format. The driver-crew chief duo got the bulk of their seven titles together out of the way consecutively winning five titles in a row from 2006 through 2010. Johnson would get his sixth championship in 2013. His record-tying seventh title came in possibly the hardest championship format thus far, in a winner-take-all championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2016 when he had to beat three other drivers at a track, he’d never won a race at before. His seventh title will always have him synonymous with Petty and Earnhardt as one of the sport’s iconic names.
1. Five Consecutive Titles
Despite Richard Petty’s dominance of the ‘60s and ‘70s he’d never won more than two championships in a row. The record for most consecutive titles in NASCAR Cup Series history had been Cale Yarborough winning three in a row in 1976, 1977 and 1978. Some had opportunities to match that, Dale Earnhardt won back-to-back titles three different times in his career and Jeff Gordon came close to winning four in a row but managed just three in a four-year span with a second place finish in the middle. It seemed Yarborough’s record would be hard to break. Jimmie Johnson’s didn’t just break the record of three championships in a row – he demolished it. From 2006 through 2010 Johnson absolutely dominated the sport in a stretch hardly seen in any other sport winning five straight titles. During that historic five-year stretch Johnson managed to win 35 races (42 percent of his career total of 83 wins). With NASCAR developing a winner-take-all championship format that seemingly makes compiling multiple championships harder than ever there’s a good chance Johnson’s five titles in a row is never going to be equaled or broken.
by Julian Spivey
In 2003 Matt Kenseth won the NASCAR Cup series championship despite only winning one race during the season, marking the fewest number of wins ever in a season by a champion in the series’ history. At that time in the sport the driver who accrued the most points during the system won the championship. Kenseth had enough points that he clinched the championship in the season’s penultimate race. Ryan Newman led the series with eight wins that season but was only consistent enough overall to finish six in the point standings.
The combination of those things led NASCAR to completely overhaul its championship format – something the sport has done multiple times in the years since.
The sport wanted to place an emphasis on winning so it put forth a playoff format in 2004 that would reset the points among the top 10 drivers (a number that would be tinkered with) in the point standings after the first 26 races of the season. The driver who accrued the most points over the final 10 races would win the championship. This format would be dominated by Jimmie Johnson who would win a record five consecutive championships and then later a sixth in the 10 years of this format.
But with the sport seeing a drop in television ratings and fan attendance in events they rehauled the system once again before the 2014 season deciding to eliminate drivers after three race intervals during the playoffs and going to a final championship event that is essentially a winner-take-all format. It’s the Super Bowl event NASCAR had always wanted and in their minds placed a high emphasis on winning. A playoff driver could win one race in a three-race segment and make the cut for the next segment, even if they somehow happened to finish dead last in the other two events. Also, in a crazy hypothetical that likely will never happen, but the thought of it happening is hilarious, a driver could win the first nine playoff races and finish second overall in the final race of the season and lose the championship.
On Sunday at Martinsville Speedway in the penultimate race of the year, the race that decides the Championship 4 for Phoenix Raceway this upcoming weekend the driver that has obviously been the most dominate within the sport all calendar year long Kevin Harvick was eliminated from championship contention.
Harvick received a flat tire early in the race, going down two-laps on a track that is painfully unforgiving to anybody needing to make a green flag pit stop, and though he eventually finished on the lead lap it put him too far behind to contend with other drivers like Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski in the standings.
Harvick won nine race this year and could win a 10th (a rare feat in the series) this weekend, and the best he can finish in the point standings is fifth.
Does this format truly reward winning? Has any NASCAR format truly rewarded it?
This is the seventh season under the Championship 4 format in NASCAR’s Cup Series and with the winningest driver of the year out of contention already (the third time the winningest driver of the year has failed to even make the Championship) it’ll ensure the winningest driver in the sport has only won the championship in two years under this format (Jimmie Johnson in 2016 and Martin Truex Jr. in 2017). So, in this format (though seven seasons could still be considered a small sample) the winningest driver has only won the title 29 percent of the time.
In the 10 seasons before under a playoff format that reset the points after 26 races and then the driver who accumulated the most points in a 10-race playoff the winningest driver of the season won the title 40 percent of the time.
In the final 10 seasons under the points-only championship format (1994-2003) the winningest driver also won the championship 40 percent of the time (interestingly that driver was Jeff Gordon every single time).
So, one could argue NASCAR has never truly put an emphasis on winning. But it certainly is interesting that its playoff format that is supposed to do so has resulted in the winningest driver of the season winning the title less often than in the 20 seasons prior to it.
The more and more NASCAR has tinkered with its system the less and less meaning winning a championship in the sport seems to have.
If a driver accumulates more points than another throughout a season in a full-season slate or even a 10-race playoff slate wouldn’t that mean they are more worthy of a title than someone who is probably the fifth or so best driver of the season, but managed to finish higher than others in a winner-take-all format?
Yes, there are those who say “well, this is how it’s done in sports like football with the Super Bowl.” Yes, it is. It’s a fair point. The best regular season team does fail to win the championship in the NFL too. But every other major racing series in the world awards a champion based on season-long point standings and that’s why nobody ever claims a Formula 1 or IndyCar champion to be undeserving. It just feels racing is supposed to be points based. I’ve disliked every NASCAR playoff format since 2004 for that very reason and the one the sport currently has may be the most entertaining, but it’s the least fair and deserving. That matters to me. NASCAR wants to be entertaining. I want it to be a sport.