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Is JJ the best NASCAR driver ever?

NASCAR announced Thursday evening that Balloon Boy's aircraft will be taken back to the R&D Center for further evaluation.

Any penalties will be announced next week.

Marty,

I saw this week on "NASCAR Now" when you asked [Barney Hall] from MRN where Jimmie Johnson ranked in the all-time greatest drivers. He said one of the best in the past 10 years. Where would you rank Jimmie Johnson among the best Marty?

-- Rick King, Tallapoosa, Ala.

This answer will be blasphemous to old-school fans who appreciate the hardships the sport's founders endured -- outrunning the law and risking life and limb for pennies -- and detest the money and fame and pampering today's stars enjoy.

Ready? Here it is: Jimmie Johnson very well may be the greatest NASCAR driver ever.

I can hear the good ol' boys hollerin' down the mountain now: "You dumba--! He's a pretty-boy Jeff Gordon clone who was handed everything! And they're cheaters!"

Whatever. What Johnson is doing in the era he's doing it in is nothing short of amazing. It is harder to win right now than it's ever been. By design, the cars are closer than they've ever been. The ebb and flow of excellence is fickle -- last year Carl Edwards won eight races and thus was the championship favorite among 80 percent of the media last February. Edwards hasn't won in 2009.

And the 48 continues to maintain an unparalleled performance level.

Some of that is Chad Knaus' ability. He is probably the best crew chief ever, though Smokey and Ray Evernham would beg to differ. Some of that is the bottomless financial and technological and engineering pool that Rick Hendrick supplies his teams.

But the 24 and the 88 and the 5 have that same pool at their disposal and haven't enjoyed the sustained dominance the 48 has.

Johnson's too-perfect polish annoys many fans. It's hard to respect for some, and leads many to misperceive its genuineness and necessity. Johnson came from a humble background. He was raised in a trailer park until he was 8 years old and worked for everything he ever got. Having no money to fund his own effort, he had to be a good spokesperson. He had to be cordial. He had to smile and shake hands and mention sponsors and make darn certain not to ruffle too many feathers.

You don't just cut that off -- unless you forget who you are. That approach never abandons you, regardless how much fame and wealth you accumulate.

Johnson is becoming more comfortable with speaking out and has begun to accept his place in NASCAR history, though he won't embellish. Few drivers in their prime will do so.

I was hanging out with a buddy late Wednesday night, an ol' Earnhardt fan, and between sips of Jack Daniel's we debated Johnson's image. My buddy says he's too pretty, too perfect, too corporate, too New York. Then I told him Johnson will raise hell with the best of them. And that his commitment to excellence is barely rivaled. He doesn't coast.

He easily could coast. He has three straight titles and a bushel of wins and a plane and a model wife. So what'd he do? Went out and hired a revered personal trainer and got in the best shape of his life. He's in the gym every day. And his fitness level is ridiculous.

One of my favorite television programs -- that just sounded like my 95-year-old grandmother -- is "Around The Horn" on ESPN. Love the banter, especially when my boy Cowlishaw prevails. The other day Jay Mariotti won, and during his final-thought diatribe mentioned that we should pay greater respect to Peyton Manning's ability, that we are witnesses of historic greatness and letting it pass us by with a passing glance.

He was talking about Manning. But what I heard was Johnson. The very same principle applies. What Johnson is doing transcends racing. It's sports excellence, not just racing excellence.

Richard Petty won 200 races in 1,184 starts, a 17 percent win ratio. David Pearson won 105 races in 574 starts -- 18 percent. Dale Earnhardt earned 76 wins in 676 starts for an 11 percent winning rate.

Those three gentlemen are widely regarded as the best three drivers in NASCAR history. By comparison, Johnson has 45 wins in 285 starts, 16 percent.

Oh, wait I hear the good ol' boys hollerin' down the mountain again "Petty and Pearson and Earnhardt drove crappy cars with no power steering or pretty-boy cool-suits, idiot! And Johnson has always had the best stuff." Yep, that argument gets tossed around a lot. And, yep, Johnson has always had good cars at the Cup level.

But it's the consistent excellence that's so striking. He's never been a nonfactor.

Jeff Burton made a good point this week: It's nearly impossible to respect an athlete or team's excellence in the moment. The further down the road you get from those performances, and realize how hard it actually was to accomplish, the more respect is garnered.

"[Fans] will look back on it later with much greater perspective and much broader view. " Burton said. "It's been incredible what they've done, and from the competitors there is a great deal of respect and I think from the fans there is a great deal of respect, too."

To get the truth about Johnson, my man Ryan McGee took a poll of industry giants and all-time greats for a story in ESPN The Magazine. One of those individuals was another Johnson -- first-class Hall of Famer Junior Johnson.

"Killer instinct," Junior Johnson said. "That's the part that Jimmie's gonna care about. The guys he races may not think he's the best at this or that, but add it all up. With five laps to go, who do they not want to see in their mirrors? Jimmie Johnson. They might not admit it, but it's been that way for years. And that's the difference between being a good racer and being an all-time great."

Say what you want about Jimmie Johnson, folks. But I dare you to tell Junior he's wrong.

Speaking of all-time greats

Marty,

What did you think of the first Hall of Fame class? I agree with it, but my friends say Cale [Yarborough] should've been in it. Your thoughts?

-- Sam O'Brien, Charlotte, N.C.

I can't believe David Pearson didn't make it, Sam. That's highway robbery. I didn't have a vote, so I reckon I can't complain. And even if I had had a vote, I'd likely have voted for those folks who were ultimately chosen anyway.

But the more I think about it, the more bewildered I become that Pearson wasn't part of the inaugural class. He won 105 races and three championships. He rarely ran full-season schedules. He picked and chose.

So who would Pearson have replaced? Bill France Jr. His dictatorial approach and foresight and unwavering push to grow the sport produced a phenomenon. He is most certainly worthy of being in the first Hall of Fame class. But to me, it should have been his father, Petty, Earnhardt, Pearson and Johnson.

Make Bill Jr. the centerpiece of the 2011 class.

Hey Marty,

What does The "PE" in points mean? I Know It mean that they get zero points, but why?

-- Anthony Galzerano, Apollo, Pa.

It means "post entry," Anthony. In other words, they failed to meet the deadline to enter the race, so they can still compete but earn no points for the effort.

Marty,

With all the talk of poor attendance recently in NASCAR and the moaning about "cookie cutter" tracks, I was wondering what was the reasoning for building so many of these 1.5-mile/2-mile ovals? Why wouldn't someone build a high-banked 3/4-mile track, a cross between Richmond and Bristol? Is it seating issues?

-- Scott Jordan, Nazareth, Pa.

I wish I knew, Scott. I figure it has a lot to do with sharing expenses with the IndyCar bunch. The more racing a track can host the more revenue it generates, right?

Marty,

Any buzz as to who will be Kurt Busch's crew chief next year? I just hope it is someone who can get Kurt his second championship and the Penske team their first. Kurt's been driving great this year.

I wish Roger would pay more attention to NASCAR -- maybe if Juan wins the championship since he loves to compete with Chip. I have not given up on Kurt yet this year, though, and Roger lost three championships -- Indy, Grand Am and Parker's [Kligerman] sort of for ARCA this past weekend. He needs to concentrate on Kurt now.

-- Janis Rothermel, Longport, N.J.

None, Janis. Busch said this week that the search is ongoing, but the focus is the here and now. Despite the lame-duck crew chief who can't come to the shop, the No. 2 team is still confident it can win a championship this year.

"We're looking for the best possible candidate," Busch said. "Ultimately it will probably be my decision, but we have great people at Penske Racing -- Tim Cindric, Mike Nelson, Walter Czarnecki and Roger Penske.

"So if you throw all of us in the room together, I don't know how the process will work exactly, but I'm sure there will be votes taken on who are the key candidates and who do we want in that position."

This is no small decision for Busch.

"I mentioned this before: A relationship between crew chief and driver is really important," he said. "It has an important factor in the success of that program. You can have the best cars, best engineering team, but if you get to the racetrack on Friday or Saturday and you're going through practice and the driver and crew chief can't make a marriage work, then you're going to struggle.

"So it's a very important decision. Right now, we definitely feel like we're in a great position in 2009 in this Chase to still have a shot at this championship, and that's where our focus is."

Busch also mentioned that his relationship with Pat Tryson -- who's headed off to Michael Waltrip Racing and Martin Truex Jr.'s team next year -- is fine, fun.

"The thing that I've noticed that has changed in my mind is when I'm in the race car," Busch said. "Since Pat made the decision to leave our program, I've been a bit more sarcastic with him and a bit shorter with him, just to kind of rub it in that he is leaving and this was a good thing that we had going on. Sometimes sarcasm over the radio can be spun 180 degrees that it's negative and that it's not the proper thing to be saying.

"But other than that, we're business as usual. We're jousting with each other, joking around here and there. It's a fun situation right now because we feel like this is our best opportunity to win this championship and we better take advantage of this now because in six weeks we won't be working together."

Say hey to Lucy the Elephant over in Margate for me, Janis.

Marty,

If you could only have one -- Chaunceys Crusties from Radford (Va.) or Martinsville's famous hot dogs? Go Highlanders!

-- Matt Gorsuch, Richmond Va. (RU '03)

Chancey's Crusties, Matt. Every time. Barbecue chicken.

Marty Smith (RU '98).

Marty,

I'm baffled. After [Kasey] Kahne's comment regarding the "phantom" caution at California, NASCAR released this statement: ["NASCAR is always going to put the safety of the competitors first, and when it comes to identifying something on the track, we're always going to err on the side of caution."]

The network showed a softball-sized chunk of something near the outside wall when that caution was thrown so clearly there was debris on the racetrack. But the part that baffles me is the fact that NASCAR will throw the caution for a piece of debris that small -- which at the time JJ had a sizeable lead on the field and was basically putting on a clinic on how to dominate a race -- yet at New Hampshire, where a thrilling finish was being set up between [Mark] Martin, [Denny] Hamlin and [Juan Pablo] Montoya, they failed to throw the caution for a 3,400-pound race car with a live human being inside, sitting crossways at one of the most narrow tracks on the circuit because "we don't like the race to end under caution." Huh?

-- Brandon, Purdue, Ind

Um. Yeah. Doesn't seem quite right, does it, Brandon? NASCAR will tell you that time and circumstance determine each individual decision. That's probably right.

But that particular decision at the end of the Loudon race -- especially since that very scenario resulted in the elimination of racing back to the caution -- was a head-scratcher.

That's my time. I appreciate yours. Now if you'll excuse me, Balloon Boy's parents are on CNN again

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.