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Is Johnson greatest NASCAR driver ever?
CONCORD, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson joked after his win in the Sprint All-Star Race last week that he just got lucky, like always.

“We just get lucky, man. That's what people say. There's no talent involved, we just got lucky tonight,” Johnson said.

He is used to the “haters,” as he calls them, questioning every victory and everything he does.

The haters, though, don’t exist in the Sprint Cup garage, where the five-time champion has tremendous respect.

How much respect? Some believe he is the greatest driver in NASCAR. And not just now, but ever.

He doesn’t have the seven Cup championships of Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt, but he is the only driver to win five consecutive Cup titles. His 62 career victories rank eighth all-time. He has won the Daytona 500 twice, the Brickyard 400 three times, the Coca-Cola 600 three times and surpassed Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon last week by winning the all-star race a record four times. He has won on nearly every track and the 37-year-old driver shows no signs of letting up.

But is he better than Petty, Earnhardt and Gordon, a four-time champion with 87 career victories?

Such conversation sparks heated debate among fans that love to take sides when it comes to NASCAR drivers. Many are longtime fans of Petty and Earnhardt and are enraged by talk that Johnson might be better.

So when current drivers are asked about Johnson’s career, they know only one thing — he keeps beating them.

“People can say whatever they want about him, but I don't know how you can't say that he's not the best ever,” said Matt Kenseth. “You look at what he's done with (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) since they've been over here and nobody has ever put up numbers like that.

“Nobody has ever won five championships in a row and probably never will. They're amazing. It's kind of cool to be part of that because I think someday you look back at history and be like, 'Oh yeah, I raced against him.' But at the same time it stinks because you get beat so many times.”

Kasey Kahne, who has been Johnson’s teammate since joining Hendrick Motorsports last season, said he has never seen another driver do so much as consistently as Johnson.

“I know my cars are just as good as his, and I have just as good of a engine and people and all the stuff, and he figures out how to win so often and championships and do it week after week, and (be) so consistent and fast when it counts,” Kahne said.

“It's pretty amazing to me what he's done, what he's accomplished and how much more he's going to do before it's over, before he decides to step out of the sport. As long as I've been in racing, I've never seen anybody like it.”

Johnson has two points victories this year and leads Carl Edwards by 44 points and Kenseth by 59 in the standings. If he can win a sixth championship, it would leave him just one away from tying Earnhardt and Petty.

Gordon, who dominated the mid- to late-90s, helped Johnson land a ride at Hendrick Motorsports and still owns a piece of the No. 48 team.

“A lot could be said about what he did prior to getting into Cup, about how hard he had to work,” Gordon said. “If you were analyzing if the talent was there, but maybe the results weren’t always there. So, I think some people kind of looked over him when in reality he had a tremendous amount of talent, work ethic, desire and passion.

“When you put that combination with Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports and that team they have assembled, from that point forward, the rest is really history in what his career has been. The numbers that he has put up, I think, speak for themselves.”

Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski described Johnson’s career simply:

“It’s pretty damn good so far,” said Keselowski, who beat Johnson for the championship last year. “I guess that’s about all you could really say. It’s been pretty good. I know there are a lot of people that would like to have it.”

But best ever? Even Johnson acknowledges that it is very difficult to compare drivers from different eras and that there is no end to the debate.

“That's a great question. I don't think there is an answer,” he said Thursday. “I think that's what leads to great conversation, debate, and harassment amongst friends that think a different driver from a different generation was better.

“I don't know how you do it. You can look at stats. But just a different world for a lot of reasons. I think it's the same way when you look at a lot of other pro sports. It's very difficult to pick one.

“If we could get Petty in his prime, Earnhardt in his prime, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Jeff Gordon, go on down the list, that would be an awesome list. We can't do that, so we just have the questions and the conversations, which are great. I'm glad we have those conversations in our sport.”

Johnson heats up the debate with every victory, every championship and every new record he sets.

But the humble Johnson is not about to evaluate his own accomplishments or his place in history.

“Wow, I don't know how to quite respond to that,” he said when told about his peers saying he’s the best ever. “I am honored that they have mentioned me in that way.

“I just don't pay that much attention to it all. It's very difficult to think about where I fit in while I'm still racing. I think of driver's careers ending mid-40s. I still have 10 years or so to even think about that, worry about that.

“So to be recognized and thought of and even in the conversation with Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon, that's a huge compliment I'm very proud to have, proud to be a part of that conversation. But I haven't thought that much about it.” Sporting News
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