For Jimmie Johnson, racing against Dale Earnhardt at NASCAR’s top level was never an option. By the time he debuted his No. 48 Chevrolet in October 2001 at Charlotte the sport was eight months into a Daytona 500 tragedy that cost us Earnhardt’s life.
“There’s been a big void in my life about not having that chance,” he said after Sunday’s victory at Atlanta. “My younger brother Jarit was a big Earnhardt fan, and I ended up being a Gordon fan [as a kid], and the banter we had back and forth through all of it was just fun.”
So perhaps his brother understands, like Johnson (right, with wife Chandra) himself, the backlash surrounding longtime fans of the sport, Earnhardt faithful who booed Gordon years ago and often don’t give this modern-day success the credit he deserves. Tying Earnhardt in victories Sunday, both he and Johnson have 76 and on paper put together the same career trajectory. Earnhardt won a Cup Series-high seven titles during a 15-year span in his career; Johnson is going for a seventh title in, that’s right, 15 seasons. Earnhardt had a Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 victory on his resume; so does Johnson, winning both crown jewels multiple times to go along with two Southern 500s at Darlington, four Coca-Cola 600s at Charlotte and a victory at every NASCAR track on the circuit save for a small handful of places the series visits just once a year.
That’s a resume capable of outshining Earnhardt. Yet Johnson, by most accounts always seems to take a back seat to the “Intimidator” when it comes to the best drivers of all-time discussion. Earnhardt had a more “in your face” personality, both on track and off and an aggressive nature; just ask rival Terry Labonte, whose car was spun out of the way to win at Bristol in a race Johnson attended as a fan in 1999. It was a career built on contact, moving rivals out of the way and taking no prisoners in the type of racing style that put fans on their feet and waiting to see what comes next.
Johnson, by comparison is a product of NASCAR’s “corporate generation.” While generally regarded as a unique personality off of the track, in front of the camera Johnson is... clean-cut. He says all the right things while the camera is rolling and doesn’t ruffle any feathers. On the track, it’s teamwork, teamwork, teamwork as the No. 48 races clean and keeps its Chevy brethren alongside whenever possible. Hendrick Motorsports is part of an information-sharing program that includes up to a dozen cars is part of this new “team” era Earnhardt was not. During that seven-title run from 1980-94, Earnhardt drove for a single-car program and was routinely able to beat the few multi-car organizations of the time. People from fans to experts feel Johnson, equipped with a library’s worth of information and just one crew chief (Chad Knaus) throughout his career benefits from a “cushy” situation in which he doesn’t have to drive the bus. Earnhardt did... and often drove it through you.
But to make such accusations against Johnson, the front man during NASCAR’s years of waning popularity is also unfair. Comparisons among athletes of different eras are difficult if not impossible; Earnhardt’s Richard Childress Racing team now has the same type of info-sharing program, for example, and the driver would have benefitted in much the same way. Johnson, whose own popularity has risen in recent years after just one championship the last five seasons, can’t be “put down” because he peaked in a different time period.
All we know is Johnson won’t stop at 76 wins. He’s got a great chance at tying Earnhardt in championships. And on paper, it’s rapidly looking like he will blow by the Intimidator in many statistical categories. So the hope is that one day, fans will stop clinging to the Earnhardt peak and recognize Johnson’s modern era success as at least on par to what NASCAR’s main attraction of the 1980s and ‘90s was able to create. Let me put it this way: a home run in baseball is still a home run, regardless of whether you quietly run the bases or dance all the way around them, talking junk the whole way. Stylistic differences don’t change the end result.
At least one person thinks Johnson and Earnhardt would have been (gulp) friends had they driven in the same era. It’s a pretty important person to ask.
“I talked to Dale [Earnhardt Jr.],” Johnson said. “He shared with me that he really feels like his dad would have had a ton of respect for me and would have enjoyed racing against me, and we would have had a great friendship. Covering that base with Junior a while ago helped me… If there are some fans that have other opinions, then it is what it is.”
Johnson’s victory also launches us into NASCAR’s new 2016 rules package, a good place to start as we go “Through The Gears” and see where the sport stands after Atlanta.
FIRST GEAR: New Aero Package Has Some Good...
NASCAR’s new rules package, much anticipated over the course of the offseason got some rave reviews from 39 Sprint Cup participants. The fans in the stands should have been happy, too, with three- and even four-wide racing visible throughout the field competing on Atlanta’s spacious 1.5-mile layout. Old pavement chewed up tires and got teams on different pit strategies; Johnson beat out a dominant Kevin Harvick in the end by making an earlier green-flag stop down the stretch. Fresh rubber clocked off lap times seconds faster during the time Harvick stayed out on old Goodyears. By the time the No. 4 came down pit road, he left nearly half-a-lap behind Johnson on-track.
Before that point, though where Johnson spent much of the closing stretch enjoying his lead there was plenty of racing near the front of the pack. Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. exchanged the top spot multiple times in a battle that put fans on their feet. In all, there were 28 lead changes, the same number as last year, but the way they happened was far more exciting.
In all, drivers were able to rub fenders a bit, struggled to control their cars and slid all over the track in a way that made the “product” far more entertaining to watch. Reports from the inside claimed we had “clawed back” to the type of competitions that put outcomes back in the driver’s hands.
“This is real racing,” said Carl Edwards. “We’re driving hard. You can see the guys out here just diffing for everything they’re worth. I’m worn out. I hope the fans enjoyed the show.”
They did, but...
SECOND GEAR: ...There Will Still Be Tweaks Coming
This new package also didn’t totally wipe some concerns away. Johnson, whose lead was erased when Ryan Newman spun to force NASCAR Overtime, scooted away on the final restart. Kyle Busch slotted in behind him but seemed helpless to pass the leader again as the “aero push” still seems to be somewhat of an issue between first and second place.
Drivers, despite claiming the cars were out of control, also completed the cleanest race in Atlanta Motor Speedway history. Just three cautions, one for a last-lap wreck, marred the proceedings and not a single one came in the first 209 laps of the race – setting a new track record. Mysterious “debris” caused the first slowdown and you wonder if NASCAR officials had stayed out of it we would have run caution-free until two laps to go.
Now, these are 39 of the best drivers in the country and there’s a reason why they drive in the Cup Series. Fans don’t (or shouldn’t) come for the wrecks and I’m not advocating a wreckfest. But there were several drivers who felt like the sport could take away even more downforce. It still seemed like despite quotes favoring the new package there could be tweaks making their lives even more difficult.
It’s also notable there wasn’t a single mechanical failure Sunday. The first two races this season, we’ve seen a grand total of one car go behind the wall for that type of malfunction (Robert Richardson Jr. at Daytona). I wonder if that’s a good thing as that eliminates an element of risk and unpredictability for fans. Why go 500 miles if it’s not a true test of machine as well as man?
THIRD GEAR: Toyotas Take A Back Seat to Hendrick
Toyotas, dominant during Daytona Speedweeks, took a back seat Sunday as Hendrick Motorsports chassis turned dominant. Harvick was in position to win in a week where Stewart-Haas Racing announced earlier the team is breaking its Hendrick alliance just one season after it was the best car. He combined with teammate Kurt Busch to lead 193 of 330 laps; add in winner Johnson and that number jumps to 245.
Toyota, by comparison had issues with its best car. Matt Kenseth went through a bizarre fueling penalty and argued with crew chief Jason Ratcliff on when to serve it. That left him two laps off the pace and dealt a second straight dose of bad luck. Kyle Busch and Edwards had top-5 finishes but never showcased the speed to run up front.
FOURTH GEAR: A Surprise Appearance by Roush Fenway
The SHR-Ford announcement seems to affect Roush Fenway most of all. Once the team that set the standard for Blue Oval success, RFR will slide to No. 3 on the pecking order there next year behind that new four-car addition and a dominant Team Penske. But Roush, winner of two Cup titles won’t go down without a fight. Young Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who some felt shouldn’t have kept his ride following a tumultuous 2015, had one of his better race weekends, qualifying fifth and finishing a strong 10th. Teammate Greg Biffle bounced back from a rough Daytona to run 13th, the first car one lap down.
Even Trevor Bayne, who slumped to 22nd during the race, showed promise by starting the weekend qualifying third. So perhaps some offseason shuffles by RFR will pay dividends early on in NASCAR’s rule package? They’ll have to in order to keep the team relevant and in Chase contention.
“Young guns” still took a back seat at Atlanta but are showing some promise. Austin Dillon has runs of ninth and 11th to start the year. Stenhouse was 10th and rookie Chase Elliott? He quietly slotted in eighth after struggling through much of the early part of the weekend. New faces will come at some point this season; the question is when? ... Chip Ganassi Racing, slotted to benefit from SHR’s departure from Hendrick, missed the race setup Sunday. Jamie McMurray, starting the race on the front row slid to 21st at the finish and Kyle Larson was 26th, three laps down. With new investor Rob Kauffman on board those type of weekends won’t be tolerated long... Only 39 cars showed up to race Sunday, NASCAR’s smallest Cup field since 1996. The “charter” agreement solidified the ownership in place but the lack of new cars trying to make the field? And the monetary slide that tilts winnings in favor of “chartered” teams? That worries me.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photos by ASP Inc.)