COMMENTARY

Higgins Scuffs: NASCAR's greatest driver of all time? It's impossible to say

ThatsRacin.com ContributorNovember 20, 2013 

The debate began almost as soon as the checkered flag fell on the Cup Series 2013 season finale Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The subject:

Who is NASCAR's greatest driver of all time?

Is it Jimmie Johnson, who captured his sixth championship in eight years at the Florida track?

Some immediately said so. ESPN quickly placed Johnson's profile "on the Mount Rushmore of racing."

Certainly, Johnson, driving for Hendrick Motorsports, is among the very, very best ever seen in stock car racing with 66 victories and all those titles in just 13 years on the major circuit.

But my contention is this:

Statistics aside, there absolutely is no way of determining the single greatest driver because most of those deserving of "Rushmore" glory competed in different eras.

Richard Petty is the greatest of his era, the 1960s and '70s. Dale Earnhardt of the following era, the '80s through mid-90s. And Johnson of his era, which started in 2001.

The conditions and competition that each has faced was vastly different.

It's the same as in other sports.

Who was baseball's greatest home run slugger? Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron and Willie Mays? Bobby Bonds and Alex Rodriguez don't qualify with me because of their alleged use of steroids.

You can't tell, because they batted in different eras and conditions.

Ruth, for example, played shorter seasons and during a time when baseballs weren't nearly as lively. But were pitchers better when Aaron and Mays were at the plate?

It's a similar situation in pro football concerning the greatest quarterback. Was Johnny Unitas better than Dan Marino or Joe Montana or Brett Favre or Peyton Manning or Tom Brady? Unitas faced defenders that weren't nearly so big and fast as later on. But there weren't so many teams then, so the talent pool might relatively have been much better.

Golf?

In their primes Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead reigned. Then, in succession, along came Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, the latter having the benefit of better golf ball and club technology.

Determining the greatest in most major sports simply isn't possible.

Major factors to consider in NASCAR:

• Petty sometimes ran up to 62 races in a season, often in 100-milers in which he had little competition. But other times the winner of 200 races and seven championships for many years faced the strongest of rivals in David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Fred Lorenzen, Bobby Isaac, Benny Parsons and Buddy Baker. Early on he raced against Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson, the latter, according to some oldtimers, the best ever to take the wheel in NASCAR. Some, including me, think Petty's era from the mid-1960s through the early '80s had more truly great drivers than any other.

Plus, Petty didn't have the benefit of ultra-modern technology and multi-car team input available to Jimmie Johnson.

• Earnhardt also battled very tough competition en route to winning seven titles and 76 races before his tragic death on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. Earnhardt lined up against not only Bobby Allison and his son, Davey, but also Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett, Terry and Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd and, for a few seasons, Tim Richmond.

Jimmie Johnson's main competition has been from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion, and top stars Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Clint Boyer and the Busch brothers, Kyle and Kurt.

Hardly a shabby group.

So how is it possible to classify one driver the greatest when they competed in eras with different rivals, on many different tracks and in times of widely varying technology?

Certainly, Petty, Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson should be the first carved on racing's make-believe version of Rushmore.

But, realistically, hailing one of them as the greatest simply isn't possible.

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