After his victory at Atlanta earlier this week many of us who hadn’t already done so reached the conclusion that Jimmie Johnson is one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history.
Johnson has now matched Dale Earnhardt’s career total of 76 victories. That the Hendrick Motorsports driver has done so is what drew greater attention to his achievements.
Any driver who can equal Earnhardt in numbers is always going to bask in the spotlight simply because he is mentioned in the same breath as one of NASCAR’s most iconic figures.
Comparisons between Earnhardt and Johnson began almost immediately after the race in Atlanta ended. Social media told us that: Johnson reached 76 wins in fewer races than Earnhardt, 509 to 671, and he achieved that number in fewer years, 15-22.
On the other hand, Earnhardt has more top-five finishes, 280-208, as well as top-10 finishes, 426-315. He has seven championships to Johnson’s six. However, Johnson is the only driver in NASCAR history to win five consecutive titles.
It is true that we will never know how much Earnhardt could have added to his legacy following his death in Daytona in 2001.
And it is also true that we can’t say how much more Johnson will accomplish in the future. We only know that, right now, he has ample opportunity to do so. We already know Johnson has fashioned a Hall of Fame career.
That being said, we also know he’s going to win more races, which means that he will supplant Earnhardt’s position at No. 7 on NASCAR’s all-time list.
Earnhardt’s 76th, and last, victory came on Oct. 15, 2000 at Talladega Superspeedway. It was one of the most dramatic and exciting races of his career.
The race was called the Winston 500 and would be the last to carry the sponsorship of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s cigarette brand. The company was ending its support of the Winston Cup circuit that had begun in 1971.
Earnhardt was in his 17th season with team owner Richard Childress, an association that had already produced six championships. Earnhardt, always a master of the high-speed draft, was out to capture his 10th Winston Cup victory at the 2.66-mile track and thus cement his standing as the speedway’s all-time winner.
Earnhardt qualified 20th in his Chevrolet, which came as an unwelcome surprise to him and the legion of his fans in attendance.
He didn’t fare much better in the race. He led many laps but found himself mired in 18th place when the race’s final caution period – caused by a four-car accident on the tri-oval – ended on Lap 173. There were 15 laps to go.
As is typical at Talladega, where packs of cars raced nose-to-tail, Earnhardt was surrounded with little room to maneuver. Few, if any, gave him a chance to come to the front.
But this was Earnhardt, the driver whose peers said he could “draft off a paper bag.” Sure enough, he began to move to the front.
His greatest asset was the rear push he received from Kenny Wallace and Joe Nemechek, teammates at Andy Petree Racing. Ironically, Petree had previously served as Earnhardt’s crew chief.
The trio cut through the field. As the white flag flew Mike Skinner, Earnhardt’s teammate at RCR, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were running first and second.
Just think of it. Earnhardt was challenging for the lead via a push from drivers for his one-time crew chief. To win he had to pass his teammate and his own son, whom he employed at Dale Earnhardt Inc.
On the last lap Earnhardt was on the high side of the track with Wallace and Nemechek behind him. They caught, and then got by, Skinner. Earnhardt beat Wallace to the checkered flag by one-tenth of a second as the grandstands erupted in cheers.
Earnhardt admitted he didn’t think he had any chance at victory given his position on the final restart. He added that only with Wallace’s help in the draft could he make up the difference.
“I don’t believe we would have won this race without Kenny,” he said.
Wallace’s runnerup finish would be the best of his Winston Cup career.
It seemed only fitting that Earnhardt’s last career victory be one of the most exciting in Talladega’s history. He was killed four months later in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
And now, Johnson is in his company. He showed his respect for the driver of the No. 3 Chevy known as “The Intimidator” by displaying three fingers during his victory lap. There is no doubt Johnson has earned respect, sometimes grudgingly, from Earnhardt fans who recognize his great talent.
But in their hearts he will never replace their man. And that is how it should be.
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