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NASCAR's Greatest: Petty, Earnhardt ... or Johnson?


By winning a sixth Sprint Cup Series championship, Jimmie Johnson has crept into the “greatest NASCAR driver” conversation with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. It’s hard to argue with Johnson’s stats: six titles in eight years; never finishing lower than sixth in the standings since his full-time arrival in 2002; one title away from tying Petty and Earnhardt; 66 career wins, which currently find him eighth all-time — trailing Earnhardt’s 76 and within striking distance of Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison.

While I am not among the “haters” who decry Johnson’s accomplishments and rue the day Chad Knaus graduated from Evernham University, I believe Johnson’s coronation as the greatest ever is a bit premature — and here are five reasons why:

5. Numbers Game
As renowned 20th and 21st century laureate Ric Flair once noted, “To be the man, you have to beat the man.” Simply put, no one is going to come close to touching Richard Petty’s 200 career Grand National/Cup Series wins.

It’s physically impossible. Just isn’t happening. Ever.

In fact, Johnson would need to get on his horse, even after all he has accomplished thus far, to get to David Pearson’s 105-win total. Many thought it a sure thing that Jeff Gordon would match Pearson after reeling off 10- to 13-win seasons with regularity in the late 1990s — but now even that’s off the table.

Petty has the record for consecutive victories in a season (10), NASCAR’s modern era record for consecutive wins at four (though several drivers have tied that mark, including Earnhardt and Johnson), most wins in a season all-time (27), and is tied with Gordon for most wins in a season during the Modern Era (1972-present) at 13. Of note, Petty’s 13 wins in 1975 were in a 30-race season; Gordon’s came during a 35-race slate.

Petty also has seven Daytona 500 wins, while Johnson “only” has two. Among active drivers, Gordon alone has a legitimate shot at Petty’s Daytona record, as his four wins in the “Great American Race” are at least within striking distance.

4. Persona Non Grata
For as unflappable as he appears and with all that he has accomplished in a short period of time, Johnson does not have the swagger that Earnhardt carried. Earnhardt’s litany of nicknames says it all: “One Tough Customer,” “The Intimidator,” “The Man in Black,” and “Ironhead.” Johnson has been known as “Four-Time,” “Five-Time,” and now will be upgrading his business cards to “Six-Time” (“Six Pack” just doesn’t work as a moniker, because the only “Six-Pack” I recognize is the one led by Brewster Baker, or those atop a 440 or 340 Mopar mill).

Johnson has been accused of being “vanilla” simply because he doesn’t embarrass himself by cussing out reporters or getting into fights with other drivers. He goes about his business in as cool and calm a manner as any in the sport. When Greg Biffle horse-collard him after Martinsville just a few weeks ago in front of a dozen cameras, Johnson calmly said, “Hey, let’s talk about this …”

“Ice Man” is already taken by Terry Labonte (and Chuck Liddell), so I’m not sure what else would work here. Maybe just hit him with “Drago” … because he must break you. And he will.

3. Pain & Gain
Those who make the case for Johnson being the best ever cite his dominance in an era where more cars are able to win within the parameters of a shorter schedule. Fair enough, but have you ever poked your head inside any of the machines that Petty or Earnhardt drove early on? They were called bucket seats for reason, since they offered all of the lateral support and protection of a five-gallon pail. Crumple zones? Sure, those old Chargers and Montes had those; they were known as “legs” and “shoulders.”

Back in the muscle car heyday of the ‘60s you could order a body-in-white from Chrysler with a Hemi, and carbon monoxide poisoning came as a no-cost option. They also came equipped with Armstrong power-steering, meaning your arms provided the power for the steering. Watch any old in-car camera shot of men like Petty, Yarborough or Buddy Baker, constantly sawing a half-turn on the steering wheel in the middle of the draft at Talladega (on 40-year old bias-ply tires) for 500 miles, hanging halfway out of the seat with no head rest.

Oh, and I bet those chinsy open-faced helmets provided all sorts of protection — about as much as the overalls soaked in deer urine or whatever the hell they used to treat them so they’d catch fire just a little bit slower than if otherwise doused in a gallon of leaded Unocal 76.

Earnhardt raced with a broken leg, broken shoulder and his mustache burned off. He won the pole at Watkins Glen in 1996, setting a track record in the process, after breaking his clavicle two weeks prior following a hit in Talladega’s frontstretch wall at a 90 degree angle — then getting t-boned in the roof.

Petty raced with a broken arm, shoulder, fingers, a few concussions and half his stomach missing following surgery for an ulcer. And the topper: he raced with a freakin’ broken neck. Two safety innovations were implemented after he nearly perished: the window net and a roll cage bar known as the “Petty Bar.” Earnhardt’s Talladega wreck prompted the installation of the “Halo Bar” and another rigid bar that runs the center of the windshield — to say nothing of SAFER Barrier technology and mandating of head and neck safety devices following his fatal accident at Daytona in 2001.

Longevity was not something drivers of the first four generations of NASCAR could count on. Quite the contrary.

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2. Stylin’ & Profilin’
To play off the persona piece a bit, both Petty and Earnhardt have become pop-culture icons with their respective styles, which evolved through several decades.

Petty’s 1970 look consisted of Dirty Harry Baloramas and a Fu-Manchu, as well as his trademark cowboy boots with which he also drove in. As the decade drug on he mixed it up with a pseudo-fro and his now trademark mustache, Charlie 1 Horse Hat, cigar and that massive marquee belt buckle announcing him as a Seven-Time Winston Cup Champion and Seven-Time Daytona 500 Winner. Undoubtedly, the coolest hardware in all of racing.

Earnhardt was rocking Wranglers before Junior, Brett Favre and Drew Brees were out of Pampers. Arnold Schwarzenegger may have put Gargoyles on the map in “Terminator,” but Big E took them mainstream. Before Garth Brooks got on the black jeans bandwagon, “The Man in Black” had already gone through a few pair.

Besides, the true measure of a man is whether or not you can successfully pull off the mustache while not looking like a total creep. Both Petty and Earnhardt made them macho, long before hipsters in skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors ruined it for state cops and IROC owners nationwide.

Clothes may make the man, but what says more about an individual than his ride? When you say NASCAR, the first images that pop in your mind are a menacing black No. 3 Chevrolet and a Plymouth, Dodge, or Pontiac emblazoned with the No. 43 and finished with Petty Blue paint and an oversized STP logo on the hood.

What other car company has gone so far as to create a model for sale to the public with the express intent of recruiting a star driver back into the fold? Chrysler did that with the 1970 Plymouth Superbird after Petty left to drive a Ford prior to the ’69 season. The 426 Hemi became a production engine after Petty sat out the ’65 season as part of a corporate boycott when it was banned by NASCAR the year following his first championship; had Petty the opportunity to defend the title, his records would have been even more gaudy.

When GM Goodwrench came aboard as Earnhardt’s primary sponsor in 1988, a star was instantly born. Suddenly everyone needed a black Monte Carlos SS Aerocoupe, and the Lumina that followed was legendary in its own right. It was the sight of that black angular nose in the rearview mirror, with only Earnhardt’s blacked-out bubble goggles and mustache visible above the tiny spoilers of the day, that created “The Intimidator” mystique.

Chevrolet was quick to cash in on the images, offering special black and silver Earnhardt-themed editions of the Monte Carlo. In 2012, Lionel Racing Collectibles released its top 10 best-selling racing collectibles; Earnhardt’s cars ranked in positions 2 and 4 despite the fact that the No. 3 has been absent from Cup competition for over a decade — save for the small stylized version that has adorned the B-pillar of Kevin Harvick’s No. 29. It will make a return in 2014 with Austin Dillon at the wheel, however Richard Childress has opted not to have the car clad in black. So far as we know.

Johnson’s No. 48 is a recognizable logomark, but has yet to register on the level as Earnhardt’s 3 or Petty’s 43. NASCAR (and General Motors) haven’t helped his cause, either, as the California native has been forced to drive something with Monte Carlo headlight stickers, as well as a replica of a rental car — the Impala — the last few seasons. The new Gen-6 car was upgraded to a Chevrolet SS … which if someone has actually seen on a dealer lot, they can probably also claim to have been riding a unicorn at the time.

1. Iconic vs. Bionic
They always say to never meet your heroes, because you’ll end up disappointed. Having had the opportunity to meet both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, I can confidently say that the statement couldn’t be more wrong.

Everyone’s heard the stories of how Petty would hang out after a race and sign his iconic autograph for every fan who wanted one — admittedly a bit easier when there were 5,000 people who’d show up rather than 80,000 today. I first met Petty when I was 10 years old at a retail store grand opening. Our local NBC affiliate sports anchor was waiting in line behind us to get an autograph and shake hands with a legend as well — not daring to pull his press card; he was as wide-eyed and nervous as Ralphie telling Santa about his Red Ryder wish.

I was able to meet Earnhardt twice during his championship seasons of 1990 and ’94. He would come to Berger Chevrolet in Grand Rapids, Mich., to sign autographs for up to four hours. One time the line was so long, he had one of his associates call down to Michigan International Speedway to find a driver to practice his car on race weekend because there were still 1,000 people waiting in line.

This isn’t to discount Johnson’s interaction with the fans. As an enamored female fan rushed towards him at MIS this summer with a gigantic novelty golden horseshoe, Johnson laughed and willingly signed it. After a late-race brush with the wall in 2011, I was surveying the damage on his car when I glanced over and saw him next to me looking at it as well. I grimaced a bit, like I accidentally whacked it with my truck door.

Johnson fumed a bit, looked at me and said, “Well that f----in’ sucked, huh?”

Different drivers, different eras. All three are remarkable in their own right and time, and have a legion of loyal fans that will gladly cuss out anyone who disagrees with them on the topic. Johnson’s achievements and success are certainly something special in this day of hyper-competitive teams, technology-run-amok and stringent rules-enforcement.

Johnson, however, is here because of Petty and Earnhardt. Richard Petty propelled racing into the national consciousness from a Wide World of Sports oddity to a live flag-to-flag national broadcast in 1979; he landed stock car racing on the front page in 1984 with President Ronald Reagan. Dale Earnhardt made fans of people who never knew racing existed, the last of his breed before corporate sponsorship attributes determined who got rides and who didn’t. Upon his passing in 2001, flags were lowered to half-staff at the White House, an honor typically reserved for the passing of heads of state, dignitaries, war heroes or victims of tragedies. 

Regardless of how many wins and championships Jimmie Johnson ends up with, Earnhardt will always be “The Intimidator” and Petty will always be “The King.” Therefore, speaking ill of the standard any of the three greats has set is disrespectful to the sport of stock car racing. Ranking three drivers born of three different generations is not only impossible to accurately do, but immaterial. Honor each for his excellence and respect the accomplishments for the style and class with which they have been achieved.

by Vito Pugliese
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Photos byAction Sports, Inc.