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Johnson enters G.O.A.T. discussion

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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HOMESTEAD, FLA.

If Jimmie Johnson wins his sixth Sprint Cup championship on Sunday and later completes his quest for seven and eight, will it make him the greatest of all time?

Richard Petty’s record of 200 wins is untouchable considering that the Cup tour no longer races 40 and 50-plus events a year. That was the case during the King’s first 13 seasons on the tour. Plus, Petty won his first of 200 victories when he was 23. Johnson didn’t even begin his Cup career until he was 26.

But the seven-title mark held by Petty and Dale Earnhardt is attainable. Particularly if the nucleus of the No. 48 Lowe’s team of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus remains intact.

“Right now, it’s seven and seven, then it will be seven, seven, seven and he’s liable to go to eight to 10,” Petty said. “The way the situation is now with what they have together and what the competition has together, if it doesn’t change – if somebody doesn’t get better or worse, it’s gonna continue to be the same thing.”

Certainly, there’s no way to judge how today’s competition stacks up against Richard Petty’s era or during Earnhardt’s generation when just the sight of the No. 3 bumper was enough to instill fear into his fellow drivers. The Intimidator racked up 76 wins over 22 seasons – or one victory in every 8.89 starts. Currently, Johnson fans can expect the No. 48 Chevy to win in every 6.57 starts. However, Petty tops both drivers with victories in just about every sixth race (5.92 starts).

When it comes to average finishes, both Petty (11.3) and Earnhardt (11.1) have the five-time champion topped (11.6) – but not by much.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is “surprised” that Johnson hasn’t been added to the G.O.A.T. discussion before now. While his Hendrick Motorsports teammate dominates the current Sprint Cup class, Junior admits he’s “biased” about the best-ever debate in NASCAR – he puts his father first and J.J. second.

“The guy is good,” Earnhardt said. “The guy deserves all the credit that he gets and deserves to be in the conversation as one of the greatest drivers the sport has ever seen. I think getting that sixth (title) is just going to make him hungrier to get the next one to be able to put himself up there with Dad and Richard, and then he probably won’t quit until he gets the eighth. I know I wouldn’t (quit) in the position that he’s in. I’d be getting hungrier and hungrier and I think that’s the way he’ll be.”

Earnhardt feels that Johnson is among an elite fraternity limited to his father, Petty and David Pearson. But he feels the list changes weekly.

While Petty also acknowledges that Johnson is “loaded with talent,” the seven-time champ is quick to remind the pundits that Johnson didn’t reach this point without a strong support system. And it’s the caliber of his team that provides Johnson with the confidence to persevere.

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“I look at Jimmie sort of like I look back at Richard Petty,” the King said. “Without the equipment he’s just another driver, so, again, it’s the combination that helps make him and put him up there because without a super-good car and stuff there wouldn’t have been a Richard Petty. Again, it’s a combination, but Jimmie is pretty good and pretty cool about handling different circumstances, although most of the time he’s handling it from the front. Even when he gets in the back he’s very conscious of what’s going on and can race with people without getting over-aggressive.

“He knows his ability and he knows the ability of his car, so if he’s having trouble or he’s running and he’s a fifth-place car, then he settles for fifth place and goes on down the road.”

Team owner Richard Childress, whose No. 3 Chevy piloted by Earnhardt bridged the champion gap between Petty Enterprises’ title run and Hendrick Motorsports' dominance today, says the No. 48 team has “set the bar up.”

“They've done one heck of a job. Chad, Jimmie, all the guys,” Childress said. “We've been in a position even in 2000, we were second in the points.

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“It eats at you when you don't win a championship. But you know you're giving it your best, and your best isn't good enough.”

The Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut has earned 11 Cup titles since RCR’s last in 1994. And Johnson’s boss, Rick Hendrick, has enjoyed his share of champions, including Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte. But watching the combination of Johnson and Knaus blossom over the last 12 year has been “unbelievable,” Hendrick says. And he doesn’t believe the No. 48 team’s run is over yet.

“You just don't see that dedication that's matched with talent that often," Hendrick said. "I think he's one of the greatest that I've ever seen. ... There's a lot of guys out there with tremendous talent and have tremendous car skill. But to be smart, to be dedicated, to tune your body like you do the car, to prepare for the races in your head, with your crew chief, he goes the extra mile to be ready for the event.

“I don't think Jimmie's gotten the real credit he deserves for the talent that he has and for the dedication that he has given to this sport. He's a guy that works out, eats, and is a student of looking at track data, tire data. He lives and breathes being a perfectionist. Chad is the same way. Every now and then you get a combination of people that really click. If you give them the tools, and they don't leave anything on the table, then they're going to be there every year.”

Tagged: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson

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