The LeBron James of NASCAR

Story by: Ben Sanders

After documenting his 82nd victory last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, a thought occurred, Jimmie Johnson is the most underrated American athlete of the new millennium. Not just driver, but athlete in general.

Johnson is the Lebron James of NASCAR, doing the unbelievable and extraordinary on a regular basis. Fans are almost immune to his greatness as it is such a common occurrence. Johnson has recorded 82 wins, only one behind three-time champion Cale Yarborough and two behind legends Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. These two records will be surpassed this year as Johnson averages 5.3 wins a season from his first full-time season in 2002 until the end of 2016.

The crazy thing is, before Johnson made his NASCAR Monster Energy debut in 2001, he was a relative unknown.

After a less than stellar two years in the second tier NASCAR Xfinity series, being recognized more for a scary crash at Watkins Glen International than his only Xfinity series win in 2001 at Chicagoland, it took Jeff Gordon to discover a hidden gem.

Gordon was following Johnson in a Xfinity Series race and noted Johnson’s incredible car control and pleaded team owner Rick Hendrick to sign him. The only catch was Gordon had to partially own the car as Hendrick wasn’t 100 percent sold.

By now he should be. Under the Hendrick Motorsports banner, in addition to the 82 wins and counting, Johnson has won two Daytona 500’s, four Brickyard 400’s and seven, yes seven, NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series Championships tying Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

What is so impressive about Johnson’s titles is that he recorded them in the most competitive era of all-time. Petty conquered many of his when he was one of a handful of manufacturer backed cars in the 1960’s and 1970’s and Earnhardt recorded his when NASCAR was entering what is known as the modern era, from 1979-present, and got to grips with the cars earlier than his rivals. Johnson claimed seven titles in 11 years from 2006-2016.

There is also his win percentage. Johnson has recorded a 14.8-win percentage. That may sound small, but consider he is 82 for 552 competing against 42, now 39, rivals 36 times a year. This is at a time where manufacturer presence has created the most competitive era in history.

A statistic that stands out is his 11 victories at Dover. That is more than 31 drivers of the 42 entered this weekend at Talladega have earned in their entire career to this point. Johnson has won multiple races in a row 11 times, including four straight in the 2007 playoffs.

Johnson’s versatility is why the allusion to Lebron James is pertinent. In the NBA, James can adapt and change his game to combat his opponents. Against big teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies he can play as a power forward or a center, while against the Golden State Warriors or Boston Celtics he plays as an auxiliary point guard.

Johnson is good at every track regardless of configuration or aero package. Johnson is one of a handful of drivers who can win at the flat half-mile at Martinsville where brakes and handling are at a premium and Talladega where a driver holds the throttle wide open and is at the mercy of the draft.

His communication to his crew chief Chad Knaus is imperative to his success. Being able to break a corner into 10 or more parts allows his team to make the correct adjustments as tires and track temperatures fluctuate. Johnson drives his car looser and more out of control than anyone because a car that is uncomfortable is generally faster than a car that is easy to drive.

Adding to his versatility, it does not matter what type of points and playoff system NASCAR uses. In his seven championships, Johnson has encountered four different versions of structure and still stood on the stage at Homestead with the championship trophy.

No matter how many years of racing Johnson has left, he has firmly established himself as not only one of NASCAR’s greats, but America’s too.

 

Featured image for this post courtesy of Sporting News

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