Pearson's plight could be bad news for Johnson

October, 16, 2009
10/16/09
6:21
PM ET
CONCORD, N.C. -- This is about consensus disrespect for greatness, which is a chronic neurosis with NASCAR and its following.

Never has there been a clearer confluence of names and careers than Jimmie Johnson and David Pearson, here, this week. Johnson's four-peat onslaught continues unabated yet uncelebrated, and Pearson, the best NASCAR driver ever, was disgracefully snubbed from NASCAR's first Hall of Fame class.

Johnson is the Pearson of his time. And Pearson was the Johnson of his time.

Pearson is long, long overdue to get his due. And Johnson is decades from getting his.

If they gave Cup points for poignant philosophizing, Jeff Burton would be an eight-time champion by now. So we can turn to him for wisdom on this subject -- especially for projection of Johnson's plight in the decades to come.

"You never get your just due in the era that you're in," Burton said the other day, speaking of Johnson. "Because the people you're competing against don't want to give it to you."

Truth is, Burton continued, "Anyone who should at the very least appreciate and respect what Jimmie Johnson and that team have done, they're not open-minded enough right now. They're just not going to."

Truth is, in my experience, they may never.

I mean the whole NASCAR realm, from deep inside the garages to the grandstands and beyond.

Pearson's plight is ominous for Johnson.

So who, you ask, deems Pearson the greatest ever? The serious, the savvy, the longtime, deep-inside observers of NASCAR -- Richard Petty foremost among them.

Never have I asked Petty who was the best of all time that he didn't launch into this soliloquy, or something very similar:

"Pearson. Pearson could beat you on a short track, he could beat you on a superspeedway, he could beat you on a road course, he could beat you on a dirt track.

"It didn't hurt to lose to Pearson as much as it did to some of the others, because I knew how good he was."

Never have I asked Pearson who was best that he didn't answer thusly, absolutely no brag about it, just fact: "Me. Can you think of anybody better?"

I never could. I can't now.

But somebody is making a run at him, and could approach or equal him before it's over: Johnson.

But you can see the Johnson travesty coming, because it is in motion today.

This tells you all you need to know: Johnson has 45 wins, and three championships with the fourth imminent, in not quite eight seasons. Dale Earnhardt Jr . has 18 wins and no championships in not quite 10 seasons.

And yet the masses swoon in their riotous worship of Junior, and turn their noses up at Johnson.

So it was with Pearson, when the masses were swooning over Petty, and Pearson beat him with considerable regularity: 63 times they finished 1-2, and Pearson won the heads-up duels 33-30.

"I always told him that was because he had a better car," Petty always says with an ironic grin because everybody knew it was the opposite.

In lesser equipment, running far fewer races, Pearson won 105 races to Petty's 200.

But Pearson was thought of, in his prime, as that guy who kept spoiling the Petty legions' days at the races. He kept beating the King. He was, perennially, the Other Guy.

Johnson is the guy who keeps beating everybody's favorite -- be it Junior, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, whoever -- with great regularity. He is the perennial Other Guy.

He just doesn't have the charisma to be The Guy. Neither did Pearson.

Pearson was a plain-spoken, humble man, and that added up to very little charisma. Johnson is plain-spoken, humble. In both, you have to look deep to find the quiet self-certainty in pure driving performance.

There has been such a mushroom cloud outrage over Pearson's omission from the Hall that he'll probably get in next year -- NASCAR could not stand any further smudging of its Hall as unjust from the outset.

Johnson can four-peat, five-peat, six-peat. And all that will be said of him is that such dominance is bad for the sport.

So turn your backs on Johnson, NASCAR fandom. Just as your predecessors did on Pearson decades ago.

Your predecessors missed the career of the greatest NASCAR driver ever, because they were looking the other way.

And now you're missing the career of Pearson's only challenger among active drivers.

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