NASCAR's best of the bunch

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:57 AM ET

There is a growing debate in this Mecca of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing about Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team's dominance in the series over the past four seasons and into this fifth one.

Questions are being asked of NASCAR bosses if this kind of superiority by one team is hurting the sport.

What strikes an interloper as odd is how such a discussion ever got started.

Did Michael Jordan hurt the NBA? Did Wayne Gretzky hurt the NHL?

The answer to both questions is a resounding no. The NBA thrived on the exploits of Jordan as did the NHL in Gretzky's prime.

Johnson is creating the same kind of run at history. And by the time he is done he most likely will stand alone as the greatest driver since King Richard Petty was winning NASCAR races by the bushel in the 1960s and '70s.

But there is a more compelling statistic that actually is never computed and that is that Johnson is trashing the competition in an era where drivers and their equipment are leap years ahead of what they were in Petty's or even in Dale Earnhardt's best years.

When Petty was racing there really was only seven or eight drivers who had the talent and cars to compete for wins. In Earnhardt's best years there were maybe a dozen teams capable of winning at the Cup level.

In the four -- so far -- championship years Johnson has been on top, there are 15-20 drivers capable of winning every race. Never has competition been this tough in NASCAR's top loop.

For those who would suggest that Chad Knaus -- Johnson's brilliant crew chief -- is as responsible as the driver for the success of the team remember that the likes of Earnhardt and Darrel Waltrip had Hall of Fame bound crew chiefs as well.

It was interesting to listen to Knaus, in fact, on his take on Johnson's part in the unprecedented championship run. Knaus, speaking after the race Sunday at Bristol, said he continues to be amazed at how Johnson prepares for a race and how his concentration never falters.

"All of what happens in situations like (coming from behind to win), whatever it is, I think it falls back on preparation, it really does," he said. "You know, Jimmie ran 490 laps (at Bristol), got out of the race car, looked like he ran 20. Some of these other guys are falling over, whipped, could hardly drive."

Fans may very well start to resent Johnson's winning ways but if they truly understand the sport they will be happy that they are witnessing history in the making.

And make no mistake about it, when Johnson is done with his career it will be looked back upon as the golden age of NASCAR drivers.

Rick Hendrick has seen his share of championship drivers, having employed Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon and now Johnson.

And he thinks that what race fans are seeing now is the best of the bunch. Hendrick said that he really can't understand why some folks won't give Johnson his due.

"If he has got a shot (at winning), there's nobody I'd rather have sitting there in the seat than Jimmie with 10 to go," Hendrick said at Bristol.

"If you look at the stats and you look at the talent and you look at the dedication, just look at his record, I mean, I don't understand why it's not written now he's one of the best that has ever done this."

The boss at NASCAR's top team isn't just saying this because his name is on the garage door, either.

"You look at Jeff (Gordon), and I've been around for a long time, I've watched a lot of guys from Richard Petty on up to current day," he said.

"When you look at the level of competition since Johnson has been in the sport, what he has done, what he has accomplished, I mean, I don't know what he has got to do to get the respect he deserves."

Johnson, remember, didn't have anything handed to him on a silver platter either. He grew up in a trailer park in El Cajon, Calif., and honed his driving skills on the dusty and dangerous dirt truck circuits of the Baja Peninsula.

In fact, Gordon had to plead with Hendrick back in 2001 to hire Johnson, who at that point was winless in the (then) NASCAR Busch series.

The rest, as they say, is indeed history.

DEAN.MCNULTY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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