Pending milestones set Johnson, Gordon apart
June 18, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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When the smoke finally cleared from Jimmie Johnson's burnout this past weekend at Michigan International Speedway, it revealed not only a first victory in over two dozen attempts at one of the few tracks that have bedeviled the six-time champion of NASCAR's premier series. It also saw Johnson creep a little closer to another career milestone -- and he's not alone.
So much of the focus this season will be on Johnson's pursuit of a potential record-tying seventh championship, an undertaking that gained even more traction Sunday when the Hendrick Motorsports driver vaulted to the Sprint Cup Series lead in victories. But there's something else going on right now that we haven't seen in a long time, and we may not witness again for decades: Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon both pursing landmark victories at the same time.
Johnson's win Sunday at Michigan was his 69th at the sport's top level, and his next one will be a nice round number surpassed by just seven other men in the sport's history. At the same time, Gordon's most recent victory on May 10 at Kansas Speedway was his 89th, putting him within striking distance of a milestone no driver has reached since Gerald Ford was president. The fact that these two pursuits are occurring at once makes them all the more remarkable -- the way they're running this season, no one would be surprised to see Mr. 70 and Mr. 90 crowned in successive weeks.
Much like Johnson's march toward seven championships, we're witnessing something very special here, and something that likely won't occur again for a very long time. Watching NASCAR in the era of Johnson and Gordon is like watching golf at the height of Jack Nicklaus -- we're spoiled by the ability to see two of the best ever climb the career victory ladder with relentless persistence. Yes, Jimmie wins a lot. Yes, Jeff doesn't win quite as often as he used to. None of that detracts from the fact that these two drivers, who also happened to be linked by team affiliation, have displayed degrees of longevity and consistency which transcend the age in which they compete.
Being able to watch it unfold on parallel tracks is akin to seeing Halley's comet streak by on back-to-back nights. They may rank first and second respectively on NASCAR's career victory list, but Richard Petty recorded his 100th career victory a decade before David Pearson -- who didn't run the full schedule nearly as often as the King did -- got his. They may have been close friends and fierce rivals, but Dale Earnhardt far outdistanced Rusty Wallace in terms of career victories, earning his 50th a decade before his Hall of Fame counterpart won his.
So no, when it comes to milestones of this magnitude being chased by two drivers at the same time, we really haven't seen anything like this since the early 1980s, when Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough were scrapping it out on a weekly basis. But even then, there was separation -- Yarborough got to No. 70 in the spring of 1981 at Atlanta, a year before Allison got there at Daytona in the summer of 1982, and well before Waltrip did the same at North Wilkesboro in 1986. Yarborough got to 80 a decade before Allison did, and when the younger Waltrip -- who succeeded the South Carolina legend in Junior Johnson's powerhouse car -- was still well behind.
That kind of historical context only serves to further illuminate what we're seeing now: two drivers both chasing milestones that not only cement their own positions among the sport's all-time greats, but continue to separate them from their contemporaries. Because when it comes to career wins by active drivers, it's Jeff, Jimmie, and everyone else. Nothing sets these parallel pursuits apart quite like the fact that there are no other active competitors really in a position to give chase.
Gordon is all by himself in third behind Petty and Pearson, Johnson is eighth with a bullet, and the next-highest active driver is Tony Stewart with 48 career victories and tied for 13th place. While we all learned to never underestimate the three-time champion in the 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, his winning pace has been slowed of late by his leg injury and inconsistencies on his race team. But even at full speed, Stewart would still be pressed to keep up with the likes of Johnson, or match the kind of blockbuster seasons that propelled Gordon to legendary status earlier in his career.
And below that, things get slim in a hurry -- Matt Kenseth in 22nd place with 31 career wins, Kyle Busch in 23rd place with 29 wins, Kurt Busch tied for 26th with 25 victories. All of them are championship-caliber drivers who may very well end up in the NASCAR Hall of Fame one day; none of them will likely ever challenge the milestones being posted today by Johnson and Gordon. If anything, the next potential Mr. 70 and Mr. 90 are in much earlier stages of promising careers, raising the distinct prospect that it will be a very, very long time indeed before we ever again see something like what Johnson and Gordon are doing now.
For comparison's sake, look at Brad Keselowski, who by any standard has had a fantastic start to his NASCAR career with a championship and 11 victories by age 30. When Johnson hit 30, he'd already won 16 times. When Gordon hit 30, he already owned three titles and 55 victories, which in this day and age boggles the imagination. Denny Hamlin has shown potential with 24 wins at age 33, but Johnson had been to Victory Lane 37 times by the same age, and Gordon an astounding 68. Many have pointed to rookie Kyle Larson, and with good reason, though remember that through the first 15 races of his rookie campaign, Johnson had already won twice.
The Hendrick teammates simply stand head and shoulders above everyone else of their generation. Any other active driver is going to need a few explosive seasons -- akin to Gordon from 1996-98, or Johnson from 2007-09 -- to even approach what they've done. In the meantime, sit back and appreciate a rare moment created by two of the best ever chasing career milestones at the same time. Because a potential Mr. 90 and Mr. 70 don't come along every day.