Johnson’s greatness

It’s time to recognize Jimmie Johnson, who won Sunday, as the best, columnist writes,

- Jeff Gluck USA TODAY Sports FOLLOW REPORTER JEFF GLUCK @jeff_gluck for breaking news and analysis from the track.

There might be some holdouts who refuse to admit Jimmie Johnson is the greatest NASCAR driver of all time. This despite six championsh­ips and 76 wins, the latest of which tied Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s career total and came Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

There are fans who want to hold on to the past, preferring to think that in the days of Richard Petty and Earnhardt it was tougher to win races. But even if that is true, there’s no denying this: Johnson is by far the class of this era.

“I don’t have a problem calling him the best of this generation — even as a competitor of his and having to go out there and race against him,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “Obviously he will credit his crew chief and his team. That all has been real consistent throughout his career — and they do deserve some credit — but Jimmie is just a phenomenal talent.”

For some reason, that’s still hard for some fans to acknowledg­e.

Put him on another team instead of Hendrick Motorsport­s, and he wouldn’t win.

Johnson wouldn’t have six championsh­ips if not for the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff.

Let’s see what would happen if he didn’t have Chad Knaus as his crew chief.

But the reality is this: Johnson is simply that good.

“Jimmie is pretty awesome, isn’t he?” Knaus said. “Let’s just be honest.”

Drivers don’t easily heap praise on one another, especially when it comes to declaring someone else is better than they are. But the stats don’t lie: What Johnson has done in his parity-filled generation is exceptiona­l.

This has been NASCAR’s most competitiv­e era, with the most lead-lap finishes and the closest battles. And the common thread since Johnson entered the sport? Johnson celebratin­g in victory lane.

Just look at NASCAR’s Chase era (2004-present). Johnson has 70 wins during that time, which is

more than double his next-closest competitor (Kyle Busch, 34).

“In this generation? He’s first,” Busch said. “He’s the guy that’s a championsh­ip contender. He’s a guy that wins races. He’s obviously the guy you look at every year.”

Busch might catch him someday. So might Joey Logano, who has 14 career wins at age 25.

But for now, even those hardnosed competitor­s can look at the stat book and realize who they’re up against.

“I didn’t race back in the day, but I know how stiff the competitio­n is these days,” Logano said. “To be able to do that is incredible, you know what I mean? He’s an incredible race car driver.”

What makes him so good? It’s not just what he can do on the track, Logano said. The way Johnson handles difficult situations and works with his team — a crucial aspect of today’s NASCAR — puts the 40-year-old above the rest.

“He’s probably better than everybody that way,” Logano said.

When Johnson won five championsh­ips in a row and six in eight years, it was actually easier to dismiss his success than it is now. That’s because achievemen­ts in a short amount of time can be twisted into writing it off as a hot streak, whereas sustained greatness is more impressive.

But just look at what has happened in Johnson’s “down” years — a laughable term that can only be judged by his own high standards — since his last title in 2013.

Last year, he had five wins. The year before, he had four (and hasn’t had fewer since President Obama’s first term).

And through it all, Johnson hasn’t changed as a person. Ask around, and you’ll be sure to find Johnson has more respect from his peers than any other driver in the garage.

“He just has a little more money in his pocket now than he did (when he started), but he certainly doesn’t act any different,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “He doesn’t get enough credit for that, because if I won five in a row, that would probably change me a little bit. But it’s amazing. He’s really down to earth, so you like to see him do well.”

Knowing the character of his father and his teammate, Earnhardt Jr. said The Intimidato­r “would have thought the world of (Johnson)” and enjoyed being around him. Well, except in one area. “I think Dad would have liked Jimmie as a person, but he certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed competing against him,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I don’t think any of us really (do). I mean, I love when we race door-to-door, but when he goes out there and spanks you, it’s not a lot of fun.”

 ?? BRIAN LAWDERMILK, GETTY IMAGES ?? Jimmie Johnson and his team celebrate his 76th career win, tying him with Dale Earnhardt Sr.
BRIAN LAWDERMILK, GETTY IMAGES Jimmie Johnson and his team celebrate his 76th career win, tying him with Dale Earnhardt Sr.
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