Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Ranking the world's best 10 drivers
By Terry Blount
Other than the mythical national championship in college football, few things in sports are more subjective than picking the top 10 race car drivers in the world.
But I bravely do this every year when the season ends, knowing full well many of you will begin foaming at the mouth and have a little holiday season meltdown.
Actually, that's why we do it. We just want to keep you fit, fightin' and ready in the offseason and give you something to complain about while you're sipping your rum and eggnog.
Yes, I know it's impossible to judge drivers in different racing disciplines. Comparing Formula One to NASCAR to IndyCar to the NHRA is a little like comparing marathon runners, 100-meter sprinters and potato-sack racers.
What makes this even more difficult is factoring in how good each driver's machine was and how good the team behind each was.
Nevertheless, I'll give it a shot. It's about determining who did the most with what he had in a particular situation.
My good buddy Ryan McGee graciously took your abuse all season with his weekly top 20 Power Rankings, but that was NASCAR exclusive.
Now I'll get all the F1 elite telling me how oval racing is a joke and only road-course drivers are true racers, and if anyone in the IRL was good enough they'd be racing across the pond.
Oh, the F1 snobs aren't alone. I'll also get NASCAR fans telling me how it's ridiculous to include any driver who only races in a straight line for four seconds at a time.
Whatever, dude. The list is about honoring the best of the best in one season by factoring in the obstacles they had to overcome.
Drumroll, please ...
1. Jimmie Johnson: Was there any doubt? How could I not pick the guy who became the first man in history to win four consecutive Sprint Cup championships?
Now Johnson can take aim at Michael Schumacher, who won five consecutive championships in F1. Like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in Cup, Schumacher won seven titles in his career, but he's the only man in either series to win five in a row.
Schumacher was 35 when he earned his fifth consecutive F1 crown, the last of his seven titles. Johnson will be 35 when he attempts to equal the 5-for-5 accomplishment.
2. Lewis Hamilton: Jenson Button had the best car in F1 this year. Hamilton remains the best driver.
McLaren-Mercedes was a little off as a team in 2009, but Hamilton still managed to win two races and finish ahead of where he started in nine events.
Hamilton was a remarkable plus-19 in positions gained for the season, an extremely difficult thing to do in F1 racing where the starting spot often reflects how you finish.
3. Tony Stewart: Is there anyone else in racing who could have done what Stewart did this season with Stewart-Haas Racing? I think not.
Stewart took over a terrible team and made it a serious contender immediately. He did it by hiring the right people and using Hendrick engines (Haas Racing also had Hendrick engines), but mainly he did it because Stewart is a helluva race car driver.
Stewart is one of only two drivers today (the other also made this list) who have shown they can race competitively in NASCAR and a major open-wheel series.
4. Jenson Button: He won his first F1 title and a series-best six races for a Brawn-Mercedes team that surprised almost everyone.
Many people who follow the sport have known for years that Benson had the talent to win a championship, but he didn't have the equipment to do it. That finally happened this season and Button made the most of it.
Button's six victories came in the first seven races of the season before a few of the other teams caught up to Brawn, but he still finished in a points-paying spot in nine of the last 10 events, including five top-5s.
5. Juan Pablo Montoya: This is the first time I've ever listed anyone in the top 10 who didn't win a race that season, but Montoya didn't need a victory to prove he was a serious contender in 2009.
After finishing 25th in the standings last year in his second NASCAR season, some people wondered if JPM ever would compete with the best in Cup. Jeff Gordon wasn't one of them.
"I always recognized his talents," Gordon said last week in Las Vegas. "I knew as he learned he would get better. He got to that point, but the team needed to step up. That's what I saw happen midway through this season. All the ingredients really started to show themselves."
Montoya made the Chase and finished eighth overall. He has won a title in CART, has raced competitively and won in F1 and now is a serious championship contender in Cup.
6. Tony Schumacher: He hasn't made a left or right turn yet. So what? Schumacher won his sixth consecutive NHRA Top Fuel championship this season and his seventh overall.
He now has won championships with three different crew chiefs, but this is the one that sealed his legacy. Schumacher won five straight titles with renowned tuner Alan Johnson. When Johnson left after last season to form his own team, plenty of people doubted Tony could get it done without him.
Schumacher did it in dramatic fashion, edging Johnson's driver (longtime rival Larry Dixon) by two points for the title in the final event.
Interesting side note: John Force won 10 consecutive Funny Car championships (1992 to 2002). The sixth title in that string came when he was 49. Schumacher turns 40 on Christmas day.
Schumacher, who has the Army as his sponsor, is going to Fort Hood, Texas, on Friday to give his championship trophy to the troops. The presentation is part of an overall day of healing at Fort Hood.
7. Dario Franchitti: The NASCAR loyalists will howl over this one. How can he be a top-10 driver when he stunk in Cup in 2008?
Here's how: Franchitti won the 2007 IndyCar Series championship, the year before the league merged with Champ Car. He didn't come near an Indy car for a year, returned in 2009 and won it again a year after the merger.
Three new races were on the schedule, one of which (Edmonton) he never had raced. And four races from the 2007 season were not on the 2009 circuit.
None of that mattered in the end when Franchitti won a three-man battle for the title in the final race at Homestead, Fla., edging Ryan Briscoe and Target Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon. Franchitti had five victories, including the last race when the pressure was on.
8. Mark Martin: Anyone who can finish second in the Cup standings at age 50, no matter what team he drives for, is worthy of a top-10 selection, no questions asked. He was the feel-good story of the season.
Martin said he came out of semiretirement just to have fun and win a race or two with a competitive team. He won five races and a season-best seven poles, falling one spot short of the title for a team that never had done that well with the two previous drivers -- Kyle Busch and Casey Mears.
9. Scott Dixon: He needed 12 more points to earn a third IndyCar Series championship and beat his teammate for the title, but Dixon now has finished first or second in the standings the past three seasons.
Since the start of the 2007 season, the quiet Kiwi has won 15 races and posted 33 podium finishes in 52 events.
10. Mark Webber: My surprise pick for 2009, but he has the stats to back it up. Webber finished fourth overall in the F1 standings, two spots lower than his Red Bull Renault teammate Sebastian Vettel.
Webber had two victories and Vettel had four, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Webber finished better than where he started nine times. Vettel did so only six times. That stat balances out because Vettel won four poles to Webber's one.
But Webber finished worse than he started only four times; Vettel was worse off at the end eight times. Webber was a plus-15 in positions gained for the season; Vettel was a plus-3.
So that's it. The surprises who didn't make this list?
Probably Kyle Busch is the biggest surprise, but I don't count minor league victories. He didn't make the Chase and Kyle was a minus-7 on improving his starting position in Cup races.
Others who fell a little short were Jeff Gordon, Rubens Barrichello, Kurt Busch and Robert Hight.
Maybe next year, guys.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.