By admin | November 19, 2008
By Richard Allen
This past Sunday Jimmie Johnson accomplished the remarkable feat of winning his third consecutive Sprint Cup Series championship. Only legendary driver Cale Yarborough had previously managed to win titles in three successive seasons.
Since Johnson’s feat has just occurred and Yarborough’s took place between the years of 1976- 1978 the comparisons of the two eras in almost inevitable. The “old school” vs. “new school” debate is one that NASCAR fans relish and with an entire off season ahead, it is certain the subject of consecutive championships will provide bench racers with plenty to discuss.
So, which is the more impressive? Was Yarborough’s accomplishment more difficult because it took place in a grittier time when NASCAR had not yet reached such celebrity status as it has today? Or, was Johnson’s accomplishment more impressive because it took place in a time when NASCAR has more championship caliber teams than it ever has?
Strong arguments can be made either way.
When fans think of the classic rough and tumble NASCAR driver of days gone by Cale Yarborough has to be one of the first names to come to mind. He was famed for fighting the difficult to drive machines of his era with a tenacity like no other. And, he was known for fighting his fellow competitors when the occasion called for it.
Johnson, on the other hand, is the prototypical modern day NASCAR driver. He looks good, he speaks well and he rarely ruffles feathers. He represents what many who have followed the sport for more than a few years have come to dislike. However, he is a proven championship driver, the same as Yarborough.
One very obvious difference between the two sets of championships is that Johnson had to win his by way of the Chase for the Championship while Yarborough won his by way of the old points system.
NASCAR’s playoff system offers advantages to modern day drivers that those of bygone eras did not have. A driver can be well behind and seemingly out of contention, only to be allowed back in the hunt after the 26th race of the season. However, by the same token, large leads can be erased after that race as well.
For the sake of comparison, Yarborough held the lead at the 26th race in each season between 1976 and 1978. He went on to win each of his titles by significant margins. Had the Chase format been used in Yarborough’s day he would have still won each championship.
Conversely, Johnson benefited from and had to survive the playoff format which basically evens the top twelve drivers and resets their points with ten races to go. Johnson did not finish with the most points under the old system in either 2007 or 2008.
Another obvious difference in the runs of each driver is the competitive nature of the sport in each era. There are more well funded, championship caliber teams racing today than there were thirty years ago. With that said, Johnson had to beat a number of capable teams and drivers just to qualify for the Chase and then had to beat more serious contenders within the Chase than Yarborough had to beat in any of his championship seasons.
To win three consecutive titles in either era is a remarkable feat. Yarborough did it when tough men raced under tough conditions. Johnson did it in a time when the level of competition has never been keener. To compare one against the other is impossible, but yet is inevitable and entertaining.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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