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Harris: Do Numbers Tell The Whole Story?

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, December 2 2009
Jimmie Johnson arrived at Camp Pendleton in California in style this week. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Jimmie Johnson arrived at Camp Pendleton in California in style this week. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

By this time, everyone who follows NASCAR knows that the statistics for Jimmie Johnson’s first eight seasons in the Sprint Cup series are pretty darn impressive, topped by those four straight championships.

But is it the best first eight years for a NASCAR driver? Let’s take a look at some stats and let you judge for yourself.

And, by the way, this is a bit like comparing apples and oranges, since some of the following drivers – Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip – either chose to run partial schedules or didn’t have full-time rides at times in their first few seasons.

For the sake of consistency, I’m starting the clock on each of these drivers from the first year they ran a full or nearly full schedule.

After posting the latest chapter in his unprecedented quad championship run, Johnson, at 34 years of age, has racked up 47 wins and has yet to finish worse than fifth in the season points.

After eight seasons, he is tied with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon in championships and trails only seven-time winners Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Petty, who began his career in an era when NASCAR often ran more than 50 races a year, was 30 years old when he completed his eighth season at stock car racing’s top level. By that time, the future King of NASCAR, had already accumulated 75 of his record 200 wins, two of his titles and six top-five points finishes.

Earnhardt was 35 by the time he completed his eighth full season in Cup. The Intimidator, who won rookie of the year honors and a championship in his first two seasons, had 20 wins, two titles and three top-fives at the same stage as Johnson.

Gordon, who finished a solid third in the points in 2009 and remains a contender, was 28 after his eighth Cup season. The man dubbed Wonder Boy and Rainbow Warrior in his early years piled up 52 wins, three of his titles and four top-fives in that stretch.

In the recent voting for the first class in NASCAR’s new Hall of Fame, Petty, Earnhardt and Junior Johnson were elected along with NASCAR founder Bill France and his son, Bill France Jr.

Johnson, who never won a championship as a driver, was 31 after his first eight seasons. He has 37 wins and failed to finished among the top-five in points up to that point.

There was also plenty of Hall of Fame support for Pearson,  Yarborough and Waltrip, along with Bobby Allison. All or most of that quartet could wind up being part of the second HOF class.

Waltrip’s early record was the most impressive of the group. He was 35 after eight seasons and had 51 wins, two championships and six top-fives.

Pearson, who never drove a full season in Cup, was 33 after his first eight years in the series. He had 46 wins, two championships and three top-fives.

Allison was 35, with 42 wins, no titles and four top-fives, while Yarborough, who got off to a slow start in the sport, was 30 after eight seasons, with 11 wins and no titles or top-fives.

So, there you have it, a lot of statistics on some of the greatest drivers who have been part of the 61-year history of the stock car sport. But what does it all mean?

My take is that Jimmie Johnson, whether he has the best start of any driver in Cup history or not, is a special talent that should be more appreciated than he is.

And here’s a thought: Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet team certainly show no signs of slowing down any time soon. What if the stats from his next eight years equal or surpass what he has already accomplished? Where would you place him on the all-time pecking order then?

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, December 2 2009
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