Commentary

NASCAR's greatest? It's possible

Updated: November 19, 2013, 12:49 PM ET
By Ricky Craven | ESPN

Jimmie Johnson will be regarded as the greatest driver in NASCAR history.

But not today.

There are two reasons I see no urgency to declare Johnson as the greatest of all time here and now. The first is that he still stands behind two pillars of the sport, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, in terms of championships. Both earned seven. Johnson now has six.

The second is that trying to sum up Johnson's career now is like trying to evaluate a baseball team after just six innings. So why take up that debate?

I believe that the debate over Johnson's all-time status will become much clearer in five years. Consider this: Earnhardt won his seventh title when he was 43. Johnson is 38 years old. And Johnson should have five very productive seasons ahead of him.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Robert Duyos/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson's family has provided the foundation for his historic success winning NASCAR Sprint Cup titles.

Will those five seasons be the best of Johnson's career? I don't know. But he's operating at terminal velocity -- the point where it's nearly impossible to imagine he could be any better. If he can maintain that maximum efficiency through focus, determination and commitment, he'll exceed seven titles.

I think Johnson will finish his career with eight Sprint Cup titles. And there is a lot working in Johnson's favor in his quest for eight championships.

Johnson likely can stay healthy and remain a competitive driver for years to come. The race cars he drives and the racetracks where he competes have never been safer than they are now. And what Johnson does off the track to stay physically fit is unprecedented. I've called him at 7 a.m. on Saturday of a race weekend to confirm a fact for "SportsCenter" only to find he'd gotten up at 5 a.m. and driven to a gym 40 miles from the track so he could train for an upcoming triathlon.

Johnson has physiological skills that make a great driver such as eyesight, reaction time and hand-eye coordination. He has racing skills learned over years of experience that give him a "feel" for a race car and a racetrack. But what he didn't know he had -- and what I think he discovered as he became a dominant driver -- is that he has the capacity to process information and make adjustments inside the car at 200 mph. That ability allows him to squeeze the extra 2 percent out of a race car by noticing room for improvement that 95 percent of the drivers don't even identify.

You simply can't perform over the 10-race stretch of the Chase the way the No. 48 team did without the entire team being synchronized. You don't buy that ability to synchronize, and you sure as hell don't hope for it. Instead, you blend it together. It's a multiyear process in most cases. But the most difficult part is preservation. We can talk about all the great driver and crew chief combinations in NASCAR, but how many of them stayed together for the whole run as Johnson and Chad Knaus have done? Richard Petty and his crew chief, Dale Inman, did it. But beyond that, I can't think of another.

It's a tremendous advantage to Johnson to have a crew chief like Knaus who can nearly read his mind. He can anticipate the kinds of things Johnson might be struggling with by watching the car, then adjusting accordingly.

While Johnson has many things going for him, there certainly are potential hurdles facing him in his quest to win future titles. Can he keep up his conditioning and limit distractions? It's unreasonable to think any human being can maintain this level of perfection for an extended period of time. And the demands on his time from being a six-time champ will continue to elevate. He'll have to hire more people to manage that. With such success comes the potential for distraction, and distraction translates to poison for athletes. A small amount won't kill you, but with heavier doses, you start to suffer.

If Johnson gets to that eighth title, he'll be affected by the things that affect all of us when we reach the top of our professions. He has two beautiful children and a lovely wife. He's got a great life, and he's created some wealth in his career. At some point, he'll want to just enjoy it. He'll come to that realization someday, most likely after he reaches the summit of that eighth title.

The one other risk is whether there is another Jimmie Johnson out there somewhere. Is there another driver who could dominate the way Johnson has dominated and prevent him from winning two more titles? I don't know whether it's a driver in this generation. But then again, I didn't think there would be another Jeff Gordon.

When I was teamed with Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports, and I had the same equipment that he had, I felt I was his equal. Week after week after week, he confirmed that I wasn't. I never believed I would see another driver in this era -- the most competitive era in the history of our sport -- do the things that Gordon did against the likes of Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Bill Elliott.

Yet here we are, and Johnson has been doing those same things against Gordon, Mark Martin, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and on and on.

Petty, Earnhardt and Johnson all raced in different eras. All three had their own separate challenges and hurdles. All three were great. But the question is: Who is the greatest of the great?

I say we've got a few innings left to play to find out.

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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