Only three drivers in the history of NASCAR have ever won seven Cup championships over their careers. One is Richard Petty, a living legend whose early dominance helped build the sport’s popularity; another was Dale Earnhardt, an unforgettable icon whose life and premature death reshaped the sport forever.
The third is Jimmie Johnson, who will embark on his final season in the Cup Series starting Sunday in the Daytona 500. Johnson’s credentials are, without question, equal to those of history’s greatest drivers. But despite his staggering success, Johnson never really captured the imaginations of fans the same way Petty and Earnhardt did — particularly as he dominated during an era of tremendous upheaval, and noticeable decline, within NASCAR’s flagship circuit.
For a series whose star personalities can become synonymous with the sport itself, the question with Johnson is: What do we make of an all-time great who presided over an era NASCAR is actively trying to move past?
It isn’t Johnson’s fault that he dominated the Cup Series so thoroughly for so many years. After finishing second in both the 2003 and 2004 season standings, Johnson won his first championship in 2006 … and then each of the next four as well. (Before Johnson came along, only one driver — Cale Yarborough — had even won three straight titles, much less five.) Johnson then tacked on two more first-place finishes in 2013 and 2016 to bring his career tally to seven, to go with 83 career wins — tied for the sixth-most ever — and more than $150 million in career earnings.
But Johnson’s superiority also happens to have coincided with an unpopular new car design and the era of NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup, an often–controversial playoff system that radically overhauled the series structure to create drama in late-season races. In the first seven seasons of the new format, Johnson won five titles; even now, he has won nearly half the available championships since the system was introduced.
So, for better and for worse, Johnson has been the king of the Cup Series’s playoff era.
There have been several keys to Johnson’s success. The first has been his place at Hendrick Motorsports, a storied team that helped another all-time great driver, Jeff Gordon, win four championships between 1995 and 2001. During his own dominating run, Gordon had recruited Johnson to abandon motorcycle and truck racing (yes, you read that right) and take up stock cars. It was a great decision. Johnson formed a long-lasting partnership with crew chief Chad Knaus at Hendrick, and his team eventually became arguably the most unstoppable machine in the history of motorsport.
Johnson’s own steely driving deserves plenty of the credit for his string of championship seasons. His car itself was fast, starting with an average grid position of 9.4 during the five-peat from 2006 through 2010. (No other driver averaged a start better than 11.1.) But Johnson seldom gave up that advantage: According to detailed loop data from the indispensable Racing-Reference.info, Johnson was passed an average of only 61.8 times per race (with a green flag) during the 2006-10 seasons, which was sixth-lowest among drivers with at least 75 races over that span.
And when Johnson did need to overtake, he made it count. Using the same data from Racing-Reference, we find that 74.5 percent of Johnson’s passes in that five-year period were what the site considers to be of the “quality” variety, meaning they came at the expense of a car in the top 15 under green flag conditions. Only Gordon was remotely close, at 73.1 percent; the next closest was Kyle Busch at 66.3 percent.
|Green Flag Passes/Race|
|Driver||Races||By Driver||Vs. Driver||Diff.||Quality Pass %|
So Johnson basically always started up front, was rarely overtaken and was a master of retaking critical positions when he needed to. No wonder he won five consecutive championships.
But going even deeper, Johnson’s consistency during that run was unreal — he almost never had a bad race. Racing-Reference has a “driver rating” statistic that aims to grade a driver’s performance in each race based on a cocktail of factors, including finishing position (with an emphasis on winning), running position during the bulk of the race and general speed over the course of the event. In the Cup Series, the ratings run from a low of 20 points to a maximum of 150 points, with the overall average sitting around 70. And from 2006 through 2010, Johnson dipped below a rating of 70 just 16 times in 180 races — less than 9 percent of the time.1
Then there are Johnson’s clutch performances to lock up those championships. From 2006 to 2010, Johnson went into the final race of the season either trailing or leading by fewer than 150 points in the standings every year. (For context, the winner of a race would get 180 or 185 points during that era, so the championship was not secure by any means.) In those five season-ending races, Johnson finished in the top 10 four times, averaging a sky-high driver rating of 105.7. Later, in 2013, Johnson coolly did what he needed to clinch, running in the top 15 for 91 percent of the race to edge out Matt Kenseth for the title after dueling with Kenseth throughout the playoffs.
|Jimmie Johnson||Closest Competitor||Final Race|
And in perhaps his greatest victory, Johnson broke a pre-race tie in the 2016 Cup standings by winning the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 — despite starting at the back of the field because of a failed prerace inspection and having to avoid a late crash that took out championship rival Carl Edwards. Johnson’s near-perfect restart and final lap in overtime at the Homestead-Miami Speedway were emblematic of the unflappable performances he was able to summon under pressure:
All good things must come to an end eventually, and Johnson’s grip on NASCAR has loosened considerably in recent seasons. That 2016 title was something of a revival in itself, coming on the heels of the lowest-ranked pair of full-time seasons (11th in 2014 and 10th in 2015) Johnson ever had in the Cup Series. But over the past three years, Johnson has finished no better than 10th in the standings, slipping to 18th (and missing the playoffs, a Chase-era first) in a disappointing 2019 campaign. His relationship with Knaus soured, and the two split in 2018, with Johnson going through two crew chiefs last season. He hasn’t won a race since capturing the AAA 400 Drive For Autism in June 2017.
As Johnson looks ahead to Daytona, where he has won three times in the Cup Series (but not since 2013), he seems to recognize that his final season will more likely be a farewell tour than a realistic battle for the record eighth championship. Last Sunday’s Busch Clash wreck was an inauspicious warmup for the big race — though Johnson did qualify sixth on the 500 grid after the Duels, and he finished third in the last Cup race held at Daytona, back in July. Vegas gives Johnson 25 to 1 odds in this year’s 500 (tying him for 10th-best with five other drivers) and only 40 to 1 odds of winning the championship in his final season. The best-case 2020 scenario for Johnson might be a repeat of the Hendrick team’s 2015 magic in Gordon’s final full Cup season, when the legend finished the year third in the standings at age 43.
Like Johnson, Gordon was never voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, though that was mostly a consequence of his career overlapping with three absolute titans of fan support: Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Johnson, by comparison, won more titles than Elliott, Gordon and “Little E” put together but has only ever been one of many finalists for the award on a year-to-year basis. Hailing from California, instead of the more traditional southern roots of other NASCAR stars, and coming up in a more business-minded era of the sport may have held back Johnson’s potential to resonate in the same way as Petty, Elliott and the Earnhardts.
“In my eyes, I think there was a lack of connection with me,” Johnson told RBN’s Lee Spencer earlier this month. “I think the way I was raised, and the way opportunities happened for me — being so structured and so corporate — that was the road I had to take. It created this opportunity for me, but I think it hurt the connection point with the fans.”
“I was always, maybe, a bit reserved. And that just didn’t translate well.”
And it couldn’t have helped that Johnson’s success was so synonymous with NASCAR’s period of malaise since peaking in the mid-2000s. An oft-cited statistic from Sports Business Daily is that NASCAR’s television viewership declined by 45 percent from 2005 to 2017, according to Nielsen ratings data. (By comparison, NFL ratings declined by just 8 percent despite an increasingly fractured media landscape.) The sharp decline has been blamed on a range of factors, including corporate mismanagement, unpopular changes to the cars and rules, and a struggle to reach a younger, more diverse fan base that is generally less interested in automobiles than the earlier generations that helped drive NASCAR’s growth.
None of this is Johnson’s fault, though, even if he did perhaps benefit from the sweeping changes NASCAR made to the Cup Series format right before he rose to greatness. (Johnson and Knaus were the masters of knowing how to win under the rules they were presented with, which is a hallmark of the championship strategy we see across every sport.) Given his consistency and performance under pressure, Johnson would have been an all-time great driver in any era.
But now that great career is coming to a close, and Johnson is looking ahead to his last Daytona 500 with renewed inspiration for a strong final season.
“There’s so much excitement in my heart about it all that it’s really fun and is bringing energy to me and the team,” he told USA Today’s Michelle Martinelli. “I know as the year goes on, it will become more emotional, but right now, it’s just bringing a ton of energy.”
With the benefit of some perspective about his legacy, perhaps fans may begin to view Johnson’s final year with the same sense of excitement — and a sense of appreciation for his accomplishments in the sport.
Dhrumil Mehta contributed research.