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Ingram: Johnson or Pearson?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 23 2009
David Peason was a wonderful wheelman. Is he or Jimmie Johnson the best ever? (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

David Peason was a wonderful wheelman. Is he or Jimmie Johnson the best ever? (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

It’s not surprising to hear all the well-deserved accolades for Jimmie Johnson after his unprecedented fourth straight Sprint Cup championship. Johnson is one of the all-time greats. But is he a better driver than David Pearson?

In October’s vote for the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, it was Pearson who was often cited as the best ever behind the wheel of a stock car. But Pearson was not among the drivers in the Hall’s inaugural class because of the bias toward those who had won more championships.

That’s what makes the question of Jimmie versus David an intriguing comparison. One’s better known for championships, the other for his winning percentage over a long career.

It’s always a slippery slope when one begins to compare competitors from different eras. The value of championships versus individual race wins is just a starting point in that debate. Since Pearson and Johnson never competed against each other under the same expectations for what made a driver the best, much less the same conditions, how can you compare statistics?

It’s not quite like comparing the home run records of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris. Pearson and Johnson competed just three decades apart. Many of the journalists who covered Pearson are still active – and covered Cale Yarborough’s three straight titles for that matter, or Richard Petty’s 200th victory. Fans have had the privilege of following all these drivers over the years as well.

For the record, Pearson won 105 of the 574 races he entered for a winning percentage of 18. More impressive were his 113 poles, which meant he was the fastest qualifier in practically one of every five races he entered. These stats came before the restrictor plate era on all manner of tracks, including dirt ovals, and for an array of team owners. As for championships, Pearson won three over the course of four seasons from 1966-1969. He might have won four straight had he not been fired by Cotton Owens early in the 1967 season. After his third title in 1969, Pearson never ran a full season again but won 48 more races.

Johnson, who was highly successful on dirt in the Mickey Thompson Stadium Truck Series, has won 47 Sprint Cup races in 291 starts for a winning percentage of 16. Johnson’s pole at Homestead gave him 23 for his career, for a winning percentage of eight, which is a far cry from Pearson’s qualifying mark. On the other hand, Johnson has won the championship four times in his eight seasons, which borders on incredible.

From the perspective here, I’d agree with the perspective that Pearson had more talent behind the wheel than Petty, Yarborough or other peers, all statistics aside. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was likely the most charismatic driver ever in NASCAR and possibly had the greatest car control. But coaxing speed was more a matter of determination than skill compared to Pearson, it seems to me.

You can go back to Lloyd Seay or Tim Flock, Herb Thomas, Curtis Turner or Fireball Roberts to find other tremendous talents when it came to skills. But longevity is part of it when it comes to proving greatness behind the wheel.

When it comes to Johnson versus Pearson, it’s a tough call. Both drivers came equipped with an extraordinary smoothness behind the wheel and a rare ability to squeeze speed from a race car. To turn the question around, what about weaknesses?

There aren’t many. Pearson, for example, never went to the hospital as a result of an injury sustained in a race during an era when fatalities were still common. There was a reason for that. First, Pearson was as brave as the day is long but wasn’t a daredevil. Second, he was always confidant he could make up ground if needed, so he didn’t push the issue unless it was necessary. Above all, he rarely made mistakes.

Car owner Owens used to blame a young Pearson for tearing up his factory-backed Dodges in the mid-1960’s before Pearson moved to the Fords of Holman-Moody. But the cantankerous Owens is about the only one with such complaints.

Where are Jimmie Johnson’s weaknesses? In the current era, the fields are so deep with talented drivers and well prepared cars, a driver can’t consistently win races or titles – much less four in a row – while carrying major weaknesses.

Johnson’s record at the plate races, where he has won twice including one Daytona 500, is relatively weak compared to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who has won six plate races in the same span. Although he won a pole at Watkins Glen this summer, Johnson is still not quite at home on a road course. One could argue that road courses are the ultimate test of driving skill in a stock car. One could make the same argument about qualifying on any type of track.

All this aside, the four straight championships pretty much dispatch Johnson’s peers when it comes to talent, if only because his rivals have all had the same chance to win under the Chase format, including his Hendrick teammates. As for teammates, he’s tied Gordon for total titles and is ahead of Gordon’s winning percentage – or any other active driver.

After the 2009 season, it’s only gotten tougher to compare Johnson to his predecessors, particularly Pearson. I’d say when Johnson wins a race on a road course, I’ll be ready to put him on the same plane as Pearson. In fact, if NASCAR is looking for an antidote to Johnson, officials should consider adding a road course to the Chase schedule!

Quote of the week: John Force had this to say about keeping up with younger drivers. “I used to spend two hours a day in bars. Now I spend two hours a day in the gym.” (Thanks and a tip of the cap to Thomas Pope of the Fayetteville Observer.)

Quick hits: Remember the days when stock car drivers used to save their paybacks for when they really needed them? In this approach, somewhere in the next race or two the offended driver took a position from an adversary when he needed it without bothering to be polite or intentionally banged doors on the way past as a reminder. By avoiding issues with NASCAR officials, a driver didn’t “pay back” himself by getting penalized, but still delivered a message to the other driver – not the fans. …By concentrating on the title at Homestead by trying to stay out of trouble, Jimmie Johnson demonstrated that no driver can survive for long in NASCAR’s top series by balloon-footing. Other drivers will quickly take advantage of it, as happened at Homestead when competitors invariably forced the issue with a not-so-racy Johnson. For those who think drivers are cruising the first 300 miles, it just ain’t so. Track position matters when you come down the pit road in the first 100 miles as much as the final 100.

For those who look at Indy car drivers as handicapped when they cross over to NASCAR vehicles and the Sprint Cup, Robby Gordon, a three-time race winner and John Andretti, a two-time race winner, came to NASCAR from Indy cars. Juan Pablo Montoya is, after all, a former Indy car driver. One of the biggest cradles for Indy car drivers: off-road racing, which is where Jimmie Johnson got his start.

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 23 2009