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Thursday, April 11, 2013
Updated: April 13, 2:01 AM ET
Enjoy Johnson's greatness

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

Jimmie Johnson will become a father again soon, as he and wife, Chandra, announced earlier this week.

Johnson is well on his way to becoming something else soon, as well -- the greatest driver in NASCAR history, better than Richard Petty and better than Dale Earnhardt.

Yeah. That's right. I said it. I mean it. And I'm not alone.

"Absolutely true," said Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, where NASCAR is racing this weekend. "I can't counter that in any way. I said the same thing to a group of people back in February when some Petty and Earnhardt fans looked at me sideways. But it's true."

Gossage knows a thing or two about drivers. He worked with one of the best -- Bobby Allison -- and has been in the sport for over 30 years. Gossage agrees with me that Johnson is the most underappreciated athlete of his generation in any sport.

Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson could well end up with the third-most victories in Cup history.

He is the best race car driver in the world today, including anyone in Formula One. I love F1, but there are plenty of F1 fans who automatically assume (falsely) that F1 drivers are better in cars so technologically advanced they almost drive themselves.

It's an apples and oranges comparison, but give me Johnson over Sebastian Vettel, who has won the past three F1 titles.

"Nobody has dominated a major league sport the way Jimmie has over the last decade," Gossage said. "He won five consecutive championships, which is truly amazing in an era when teams don't even win back-to-back Super Bowls."

The New England Patriots in 2004-05 are the only NFL team in the past 14 seasons to win back-to-back Super Bowls. No baseball team has won consecutive World Series in the past 12 seasons.

Only F1 legend Michael Schumacher can match Johnson's feat of five consecutive titles in recent years, winning five in a row from 2000-04 when Ferrari was almost unbeatable.

Schumacher is universally praised, yet many NASCAR followers look at Johnson's five consecutive titles as some sort of fluke or luck of the draw. They view Johnson as the beneficiary of a great team at Hendrick Motorsports, a great crew chief in Chad Knaus and a playoff points system in the Chase.

All those things have helped him, but no one else would have done what Johnson has done to make the most of those advantages.

Nevertheless, some NASCAR fans just don't like him.

"It's worse than dislike," Gossage said. "It's apathy, and I just don't understand it. The only thing I can figure is he's just so good he makes it look effortless.

"Earnhardt was just the opposite, sort of throwing elbows and shoving his way to the top, on and off the track. But Jimmie is just so smooth that it looks like it's easy."

It isn't easy, but the disrespect Johnson receives is deeper than on-track comparisons. Johnson is never going to be Earnhardt, the working man's hero. Johnson never will approach Petty's victory total of 200 wins.

No one will. It's no longer possible in the sport today. That was a different era, a period when NASCAR sometimes raced three events in one week.

Petty raced 61 events in 1964. He raced more than 45 events in seven seasons. Of Petty's 200 wins, 140 of them came from 1960-71, when he raced 505 events.

It's not an equal comparison to racing now, along with the fact that the heyday of Petty's era had far fewer competitive cars than Cup has today.

Johnson has been asked many times how he thinks he rates among the greats of the sport, and he always has the same answer: that he's just honored to be considered in their category.

But Johnson's achievements stand alone, and there's much more to come, despite failing to win the past two championships. He had a shot at the title in the season finale last year before an error by his pit crew and a later mechanical failure ended his day and handed Brad Keselowski a hard-earned title.

But the hunger to be the best hasn't left Johnson.

"You get accustomed to what being the champion is, the perks that come with it, the notoriety," Johnson said three days before this season began. "But once you are a champion, when you don't run like you should for a period of time, the questions will come. That's when any driver and team are tested."

Johnson is passing the test. He's back on top now. Johnson has two victories in the first six races of 2013, leads the Cup standings and should feel good about his chances this weekend because he won the TMS race in November. He also finished second to Greg Biffle in the Texas race one year ago.

That was a different car, not the new Gen-6, but it didn't stop Johnson from continuing his domination at Martinsville and winning on the short track last weekend for the eighth time.

"Jimmie just has really figured this place out," teammate Jeff Gordon said after the race.

Johnson has a lot of places figured out -- most of them, in fact. He now has 62 Cup victories early in his 12th season. He probably will end up third on the all-time list before he's finished, behind only Petty and David Pearson, who has 105 wins.

And Johnson is going to catch Petty and Earnhardt for seven championships. No. 6 this year is possible, if not likely. Johnson turns 38 in September, the same age Petty was when he won his sixth title. Earnhardt was 42 when he won No. 6.

Whether you know it or not, you are witnessing one of the great careers in sports history, equal to the legends like Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan or Jim Brown.

"People should just enjoy watching Jimmie while he's here," Gossage said. "Wherever he's introduced, they should give him a standing ovation."