The best of his era

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Gordon Kirby

In mid-summer, after 18 of 36 SPRINT Cup races, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson held a strong if not commanding lead in this year’s NASCAR championship. Johnson had won four times and led more than 1000 laps, demonstrating his dominance many times and proving a factor in most events.

No other form of motor racing enjoys the tremendous depth of competition boasted by NASCAR and you can argue that six or seven drivers – including Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and even Dale Earnhardt Jr – have a chance of beating Johnson to this year’s Sprint Cup title. Kenseth in particular has looked good this season, his first with Joe Gibbs’s Toyota team. Kenseth won the championship in 2003 with one of Jack Roush’s Fords and has been rejuvenated by his move to Gibbs.

But when you consider Johnson’s career statistics, you might conclude he’s a shoo-in to win his sixth championship this year. Consider that Johnson has finished in the top 10 in Sprint Cup points every year since his first full season in 2002 and in the top five in 10 of those 11 years. He’s also the only driver always to qualify for NASCAR’s ‘Chase for the Sprint Cup’ since the format was invented in 2004.

In addition to winning 64 of the 416 Cup races he started over the past 12 years, Johnson has led 14,880 of 119,949 laps. Pretty impressive, particularly in so fiercely competitive a theatre.

A good measure of NASCAR’s strength can be heard in the observations of 54-year-old veteran Mark Martin, who’s driving a Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota Camry in 26 Cup races this year. Team owner Waltrip drives the car in most other events.

Martin has raced Cup cars for more than 30 years. Although he never won the championship, he finished second a record five times and has won 40 races as well as 49 second-division Nationwide races. Martin recently talked about how things have changed in NASCAR compared with the 1980s and ’90s.

“In those days we raced hard but fair,” he said. “But the definition of ‘fair’ has changed. Back then, it was ‘May the best man win.’ You couldn’t fight the inevitable of a faster car. Now, the field is so deep and everyone is so close that you can’t pass and the slow cars now are not nearly as slow as the slow cars in the old days. But there’s less respect these days. There’s less thinking about the other driver and leaving them some room.”

Martin says some of the more experienced drivers race in a more respectful, old-school style. “Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman are guys I still enjoy racing,” he said. “But most of the rest of them just have no respect.”

Martin believes NASCAR has become more frenetic and less fun because of its ever-tightening grip on the rules and templates for the cars, plus recently introduced rule tweaks such as double file restarts and ‘lucky dog’ wave-arounds for the last car on the lead lap when a yellow comes out.

Nevertheless, Martin compliments NASCAR on nurturing such a strong field through tough recent economic times. “The competition out there today is about as good as you can have,” he says. “They’ve done a fantastic job of providing the package to make it all happen.”

Amid this environment, Johnson has established himself as the greatest NASCAR driver of his generation. If he wins a sixth championship this year he will earn his place at the pinnacle of NASCAR’s pantheon, in company with seven-time champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.