Thursday, 08 December 2022

To most fans, Jimmie Johnson will never be better than Dale Earnhardt

Posted On Sunday, 28 February 2016 19:00 Written by
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Here are the facts:

-- Jimmie Johnson has tied Dale Earnhardt on the all-time wins list with his 76th race win. He will most certainly win many more and possibly approach triple digits in race wins before he retires.
-- Jimmie Johnson has six Cup titles, and one more will tie him with Earnhardt (and he's now in the Chase and could do it as soon as this year.)
-- It's possible Jimmie Johnson will not only tie Earnhardt and Petty's 7 titles, but blow past it and win 8 or more. He's just as strong a driver now as he was when he started fifteen years ago.

After the win Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Johnson honored Earnhardt on track and was humble about his accomplishment:

"I entered the sport just hoping I could win a race and keep a job for a few years, and to have 76 and tie Dale Earnhardt Sr is something I'm very, very proud of. I didn't have a chance to race against him, unfortunately, but today ‑‑ there's been a big void in my mind about not having that chance to race against him, and it was literally a handful of months away from having that opportunity. So to tie him today, for myself personally, it gives me a little something ‑‑ it's a little bit of attachment to the great Dale Earnhardt and something I'm very proud of," Johnson said.

Rick Hendrick -- whose drivers had many tough battles with Earnhardt over the years -- also shared his thoughts on the two drivers, comparing Jimmie and Dale's driving styles:
"You know, I think Dale was more aggressive. He got that ‑‑ he didn't get that Intimidator title by being nice to everybody. If he got to you, he'd move you, and that was ‑‑ and I think he intimidated a lot of people, and he was a heck of a race car driver. He could do things that I didn't see a lot of people do. The one thing about Jimmie Johnson, he doesn't put a fender on anybody. He does it clean, and he races ‑‑ he gives people ‑‑ they're fast or he lets them go, and he treats everybody with a lot of respect. They're two different style drivers, but both of them were awesome. Dale won seven championships, so that speaks for itself. But I think Jimmie does it in a very ‑‑ I'd say very professional way ‑‑ not professional maybe, that's not the right word. He's not as aggressive, and he will race you extremely clean. I'm not saying that Dale didn't do ‑‑ if he got to you and it was for the win, he was going to move you, and that's his job. I think that's the difference in the two."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second behind Jimmie on Sunday, gave his thoughts on the accomplishment.
"You know, I think dad would have liked Jimmie as a person, but he certainly wouldn't have enjoyed competing against him. I don't think any of us really ‑‑ I mean, I love when we race door to door, but when he goes out there and spanks you it's not a lot of fun. You know, knowing dad and knowing Jimmie's character, they would have gotten along tremendously and dad would have thought the world of him. He said he felt the same way about Jeff when Jeff came in. He had nothing but awesome things to say about Jeff when Jeff was a rookie and they ended up becoming great friends and working together in businesses away from the racetrack and doing things together, so they definitely trusted each other, but they're definitely tough competitors on the track. But Jimmie, how can you not like Jimmie? He's just a good guy that never stepped over the line with anything he's ever said or anything he's ever did, so I think it's awesome to praise him."
But how will history remember Jimmie Johnson once he's long left the sport?

We know how Earnhardt is remembered -- pretty much universally revered as the greatest of all time or a close second or third. Even those who rooted against him in the 1980s and 1990s would admit today that he is in the discussion for best ever.

Will the same be said about Johnson 10 or 20 years from now?

One on hand, the numbers don't lie -- he knows how to win; a lot. No one in their right mind would deny Jimmie is anything other than one of the best in the history of stock car racing, period.

But the reality is that many fans don't view Jimmie in the same category as Earnhardt, and there are several reaasons why.

1. He is less likeable
Even though his driving style made some enemies, almost everyone loved Dale off the track. He could charm the socks off of you. Jimmie, on the other hand, has the "vanilla" label applied to him, and he's viewed as a typical, boring sponsor-naming driver without personality -- fair or not, that is the perception.
This, of course, doesn't take away from his driving skills, but it will cause people to be less enthusiastic about him when comparing him to all-time greats like Earnhardt, Petty, Pearson, Darrell Waltrip and Bill Elliott.

2. His career is taking place in the Chase era

For purist fans, nobody who wins titles nowadays is as good as the folks who did it before the Chase was created. They just got lucky and won some convoluted playoff system.
I don't agree with this mindset, as I see the cream still rising to the top even in this new setup (don't tell me Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and other recent champs didn't deserve it), but there are some folks who will never be convinced. This will also hurt Jimmie's long-term rating in the history books.

3. He is perceived as a cheater by many
Due to crew chief Chad Knaus' constant pushing of the technological envelope, and the times he has been busted for it, Jimmie gets tagged with the label of cheater by many. Earnhardt might have knocked some folks out of the way to win some of his 76 races (just ask Terry Labonte, among others), but no one ever called him a cheater.
The reality is all teams push the envelope (if you don't you won't be up front), and they get busted from time to time (remember JGR's dyno controversy? MWR's jet fuel incident?, etc.). But since Jimmie wins so much, the 48 team's alleged cheating is more remembered.

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In the end, I don't think Jimmie really cares what the naysayers think about his career -- all those shiny trophies and the legions of fans who are supportive (not to mention a healthy bank account) will cheer him up just fine.

But in the court of public opinion, even if he wins 10 titles and 50 more races, I doubt most people will ever utter the sentence: "Jimmie Johnson was a better racer than Dale Earnhardt" -- fair or not.

Follow Matt Myftiu on Twitter @MattMyftiu; Follow AutoTechreviews on Twitter @AutoTechReview.

Matt M. Myftiu

Matt Myftiu has been a journalist for two decades with a focus on technology, NASCAR and autos.

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