JJ just a part ... but a very big part

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Joe Montana and Steve Young are considered two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, and yet some say they were a product of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense.

Danny Wuerffel, Rex Grossman and Shane Matthews were considered great college quarterbacks, but many say they were the product of Steve Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun offense.

Phil Ford was a great college basketball player, but many say he was a product of Dean Smith's Four Corners offense.

So when Denny Hamlin was asked earlier in the week how good three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is, his answer caught more than a few off guard.

"I don't want what I sound like to be disrespectful to Jimmie, because he [has been] one of the best of our sport for many, many years, and not just in our era, but in past eras," Hamlin said. "But it's not that Jimmie Johnson's that much better than these drivers out here, especially Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart.

"He's not that [much] better than them. He's just got everything working for him. He's got a great crew chief in Chad [Knaus]. He's got great race cars, a tremendous amount of horsepower."

In other words, he's a product of a great system at Hendrick Motorsports.

But aren't most top athletes involved in team sports a product of a system? This isn't golf where Tiger Woods controls every shot or swimming where Michael Phelps controls every stroke.

Sure, Montana and Young had great talent around them and a coach many considered a genius, but the San Francisco 49ers wouldn't have been great without them. The same could be said of the Florida quarterbacks or players who have been a part of successful basketball systems.

Do you really think Dale Earnhardt would have won seven championships if he didn't have a great owner in Richard Childress who gave him great equipment and a great support staff? Or that Jeff Gordon would have won four championships had he not gotten the same from Rick Hendrick?

"I said this years ago when those debates were going on [about me and crew chief Ray Evernham]," Gordon said before Friday's first practice at Martinsville Speedway. "There is no such thing as the greatest driver. There just isn't, because there is no measuring tool for it.

"This is a team sport. Jimmie is a great driver and part of a great team. Chad is a great crew chief. Are they the best ever? You're never going to hear me say this is the greatest driver ever or greatest crew chief ever."

You definitely won't hear Gordon put his name on a list like that. He knows how important it is to have great equipment, a great pit crew and great chemistry.

And while he admits he got more respect as a driver when he won the 2001 championship without Evernham, he doesn't believe that elevated him past Earnhardt, Richard Petty or anybody else.

"I know a great driver plays a vital role," Gordon said. "The combination of Jimmie and Chad and that team are the best out there and possibly one of the best I've ever seen. I will say that.

"But there's no such thing as the greatest driver."

There is such a thing as a great driver, and Johnson is proving he's as great as any in history with his march toward an unprecedented fourth straight title.

Just ask Mark Martin, who has referred to his HMS teammate as Superman more than once this season.

"He's as good," said Martin, who is in second place, 90 points behind Johnson heading into Sunday's race at this half-mile track in the hills of Virginia. "It's a different time, a different day and age. But had he been here with me when I was racing Earnhardt in the early '90s for the title, Jimmie would have held his ground.

"It appears to me he would have held his ground better than I hold mine."

It's really not fair to compare drivers, even though we all do it. As Martin noted, Earnhardt accomplished a lot of what he did because of the way he could handle a car and his uncanny ability to play mind games.

Martin said Johnson's greatness comes from a more technical sense because of the way he works to understand the car and help Knaus improve it.

"Dale Earnhardt didn't take notes after every race and make out a full page of notes after every race so he could go back to them before the next race," Martin said. "Dale just piled in that thing and wielded it around like an animal."

I know a great driver plays a vital role. The combination of Jimmie and Chad and that team are the best out there and possibly one of the best I've ever seen. I will say that. But there's no such thing as the greatest driver.

-- Jeff Gordon

That doesn't make Earnhardt better -- it just makes him different.

And if it were as simple as plugging a driver into an HMS system wouldn't Dale Earnhardt Jr. be challenging for the championship instead of wallowing in 22nd place? He has access to the same equipment and expertise that Johnson does.

"Jimmie's a product of the system, but he's a huge part of that system," Jeff Burton said. "Without his skill set and ability he couldn't be as successful as he is.

"What Jimmie has done is take advantage of the situation he's in. He's worked very hard to make sure he's at least a large part of why the system works. There is more about that than getting in the car, mashing the gas and turning the steering wheel."

It's about preparation, being strong mentally and physically, dedication, not losing the drive it takes to reach the top.

"He appears to be doing all of that," Burton said.

But Johnson wouldn't be able to do that if he weren't in the right system any more than any other great driver.

"It's really a team sport more than people realize," Brian Vickers said. "Everybody has to do their part, and Jimmie obviously does his and Jimmie does a really good job at it. He stays very calm. He's always there at the end. He really thinks through the weekend.

"He also has usually the best car on the track every week, and that's a combination of a lot of employees at Hendrick, including Chad, giving that direction."

That combination makes Johnson better than anybody at Martinsville. He's won five of the past six races and six overall. He hasn't finished outside the top 10 in the past 14 races here. He has found a way to get around the track few can match.

But that doesn't make him the best in track history. Petty had 15 wins here. Darrell Waltrip had 11. Gordon and Rusty Wallace had seven each.

Unless they lined every driver up in equal equipment at the peak of their career, there's no way to say who is the best of all time.

"That's not fair," Martin said.

It's also not fair to say Johnson simply is a product of the system, because all great drivers are to a degree.

"I don't think the drivers in their generation receive as much respect as they should because the competitors don't give it to them because they're racing against them," Burton said.

"Jimmie is extremely gifted. He has his head in the ballgame. He appears to have the drive he had when he wasn't having any success and that gets away from some people. He's a product of the system, but he's a part of the system."

A big part.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.