Commentary

Martin, Johnson exude greatness

Updated: November 16, 2013, 8:59 PM ET
By Ricky Craven | ESPN

What makes Great?

The same question is asked in all sports: What is the difference between a good athlete and a great one? We are all guilty, to some degree, of associating too many people with the word great, because there are truly only a handful who qualify for this category.

[+] EnlargeMark Martin
Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty ImagesRicky Craven didn't have the courage nor the job security to have Mark Martin shake down his race car.

I was not great, but I raced against great. Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson. What is it about these individuals that made them great, steps above other good, competent drivers on the track?

My own 25 years behind the wheel, sharing the asphalt every Sunday with the greatest from my generation, taught me this:

Great drivers can plan and visualize how they want a race to happen, but have the ability to improvise when events unfold differently. They chart their way back through the field to erase whatever it is they gave away.

Great drivers make mistakes but never the same ones twice. They do not see mistakes as failures, rather they use them as learning experiences. They tolerate difficult circumstances, and so adversity translates into opportunity for these drivers.

Great drivers climb from their car in Victory Lane, appraise the damage and declare, "If I had known the car looked that bad, I never would have won!".

Great drivers have won on all disciplines of tracks, from superspeedways like Talladega, to intermediates like Charlotte, and small tracks like Bristol. The criteria should include a road-course victory.

Great drivers give 100 percent in practice,qualifying and the race, but more importantly, they communicate precise information about the car -- what the car is doing, where it's strong, where it's weak, where it needs help. The information is succinct, and therefore valuable and useful to the team.

Great drivers have season-long stamina. NASCAR boasts the longest season of any major sport, from February through November, and winning the championship requires talent and patience. The greatest drivers know how to save their best for last, demonstrating the mental ability to dig deep when it matters most. It's what we see from counterparts in other sports: Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Tom Brady.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson chases a sixth Sprint Cup championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

So championships are an obvious indicator of greatness. And before anyone challenges me about Mark Martin being on my list, keep in mind that Ted Williams, arguably one of the best ballplayers ever, never had a World Series ring. Ask any driver who was foolish enough to ask Mark Martin to "shake down" his car. Mark could run lightning-fast in your car and give feedback to your team, and left you wondering if you had made a mistake asking him for help. I lacked both the courage and job security to ask Mark to shake down my car, but I shared the track with him for many years, and I know great when I see it.

Admittedly, there are exceptions to the rule and examples that make no sense.You can be a great athlete and not be considered one of the greats. Case in point: Kyle Busch. He is obviously a talented driver and has demonstrated he has speed. But are those the only qualities required to hoist the trophy at the end of the season? Many drivers have those and, like Kyle, have not won the title. I listed many things that great drivers have in common, from communicating to longevity, but what about the intangibles?

Jimmie Johnson won five championships in a row a few years back and is now on the cusp of winning a sixth. He meets all those criteria I listed above, but what else in his personality pushed him to greatness? Johnson has a level of concentration, of focus, of drive that most of us don't have, or don't know we have. He shares these qualities with the greatest of his generation, but also with the greatest from years past -- the likes of Richard Petty, David Pearson. We all have our views; mine is that neither Mark Martin nor Jimmie Johnson has received the credit he deserves for above-average contributions to our sport.

I expect Jimmie will get his when he is finished, which doesn't appear to be anytime soon.

For Mark -- it's here and now.

Thank you, Mark.

Ricky Craven is a driver with wins in all of NASCAR's top three series, including rookie of the year titles in both the 1992 Nationwide Series and 1995 Sprint Cup series. He currently serves as a NASCAR analyst on ESPN studio programs.

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