CONCORD, N.C. — Legacies are funny things.
Consider this: The 2016 Daytona 500, won by Denny Hamlin, was a typical season opener for the NASCAR Cup Series. Martin Truex Jr. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards rounded out the top-five finishers.
Since then, at least 17 of the 40 drivers have either retired (Edwards, Kenseth twice, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Brian Vickers, Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brian Scott, Bobby Labonte, Casey Mears, Greg Biffle, Regan Smith, David Ragan, Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer) or are competing in other NASCAR series (Michael Annett and A.J. Allmendinger — NASCAR Xfinity Series, Trevor Bayne — NASCAR Trucks).
Jimmie Johnson, who finished 16th that day, recently retired from NASCAR competition and will race road-course events in the NTT IndyCar Series. He left with a record-tying seven NASCAR Cup Series titles, 83 victories and a legacy of being the best of the best for a long, long time.
The NASCAR Cup Series season begins at Daytona Int’l Speedway in mid-February without Johnson.
The other seven-time champions, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, have left lasting memories on the whole of NASCAR. Petty is still active as a car owner in his 80s and Earnhardt left the sport tragically in 2001. There are no bigger names in NASCAR to this day, though Johnson now joins them on the same tier if not at the top of the fandom scale.
What will his legacy be?
For me, it’s pretty simple. Petty was a machine, riding the best equipment in the garage to 200 victories, seven titles and a record number of Daytona 500 triumphs (also seven). He’s the Babe Ruth of the sport, if you want to cross-pollinate.
Earnhardt was The Intimidator, racing harder than anyone else for longer than anyone else, and while he was far short of Petty’s 200-win mark, he did face more cars capable of victory on any given Sunday than Petty did. He won his seven crowns with an iron hand, a deft touch and the reputation that if it came to brass tacks, he would always — or far more often than not — come out on top.
Johnson, the California kid who turned an opportunity into the golden parachute, won his seven titles in a style far more reminiscent of Petty than Earnhardt. He was fast and made very few mistakes — at least that anyone can remember. I’m sure there were some, but they didn’t wind up derailing him all that much.
While Petty had Dale Inman and Earnhardt had Kirk Shelmerdine, Larry McReynolds and others atop his pit box, Johnson had Chad Knaus, and that was a big difference-maker. Now in charge of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, Knaus was the strategist and the shot-caller, providing Johnson with that “unfair advantage” that Roger Penske has lived by for so many years.
The combination was so much more than the sum of its parts. It worked because both driver and crew chief bought in, and both played the game as hard as it could be played.
Jimmie Johnson’s legacy is still being formulated, but to me, he will be remembered as the fusion between Petty’s precision and Earnhardt’s fire, with a couple of elements all his own to temper them together.
It will be strange to see the No. 48 with a different driver this year, just as it was for the No. 43 and the No. 3. Alex Bowman will take over the number with a different sponsor and life at Daytona will resume as normal.
Five years ago, the starting field at Daytona for the 500 had 40 drivers. In 2021, nearly half of them will be doing something other than racing at Daytona. Just like Petty and Earnhardt, Johnson will be absent in truth, but his legacy will get started with a bang, unless I’m much mistaken.