Across Hendrick Motorsports’ storied NASCAR Cup Series history, the organization has won 257 Cup races spread out among 18 different drivers that include Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Terry Labonte and Tim Richmond. The NASCAR Hall of Fame owner also has 12 premier series titles among three drivers — Gordon, Johnson and Labonte.
RELATED: Hendrick Motorsports’ team page
So, who is the best driver in Hendrick Motorsports history? Is it the driver with the most wins in Gordon? Is it the driver with the most championships in Johnson? Or is it someone completely different? NASCAR.com’s RJ Kraft and Alex Weaver debate who the top driver is at Mr H.’s place.
WEAVER: Now, you’re asking me the best driver in Hendrick Motorsports history, but my pick is much more than just an organizational best. When talking about the GOATs (greatest of all time) in other sports — names like Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and Tiger Woods come to mind. You’d be remiss if you didn’t include Jimmie Johnson on that list. When you walk around Hendrick Motorsports, the trophies and accomplishments line every wall and corner. In the No. 48 building, there are seven trophies that shine a little brighter than all the others. Those all have Johnson’s name etched on the bottom and are ALL NASCAR Cup Series championship trophies.
Some have made the mistake of asking the California kid, “What have you done for me lately?” Yes, 2019 was rocky for the No. 48 team but, ask yourself, what has Johnson done for the sport? If the seven championships don’t give you enough of an answer, there’s always his 83 wins, his 228 top-five finishes or his 18,847 laps led throughout his career. From 2002-17, Johnson’s lowest finish was 11th in the standings. Twelve of those seasons: fifth or higher.
The demeanor and personality of “Seven-Time” has allowed him to brush shoulders and become friends with Hollywood’s biggest celebrities, hang out with the heroes of the sports world and bring publicity to the sport of NASCAR. He’s a family man, a marathon runner and a media darling. If you need a walking poster for Mr. H’s drivers, it’s Johnson. “Seven-Time” isn’t just a nickname, it personifies the mecca of what athletes hope to reach in their career, to be one of the sports’ greatest of all time.
KRAFT: The championships Jimmie Johnson won are hard to ignore, but I’m going to go with Jeff Gordon for my pick as the best driver in Hendrick Motorsports history. For me, it starts with the peaks of Gordon’s career just being higher. Take his run from 1995-99 — arguably the height of Gordon’s powers when his partnership was in full bloom with Hall of Fame crew chief Ray Evernham. Gordon’s win totals for that stretch read: 7-10-10-13-7. He won three of his four titles over that span in seasons that were for the most part quite simply dominating displays of speed that left opponents in the dust.
Given Johnson’s titles all came in the playoff era — I won’t dispute he has been the more clutch driver as the title format has called for — his peaks of production are statistically lower than Gordon’s. Johnson won 10 or more races in a season once, while Gordon did it three consecutive seasons. Johnson led more than 1,500 laps in a season four times, while Gordon did it six times. Johnson had one season with an average finish less than 10th; Gordon had five.
The career numbers to date all favor Gordon, too: Wins (Gordon 93, Johnson 83), top fives (Gordon 325, Johnson 228), poles (Gordon 81, Johnson 36), laps led (Gordon 24,936, Johnson 18,847) and average finish (Gordon 12.5, Johnson 12.9). The season-long consistency is also a strong point in Gordon’s favor, as he has only finished outside the top 10 in points once in his last 22 full-time seasons, while Johnson has finished outside the top 10 in points in three of the last five seasons. Yes, Gordon will end up with four more full-time seasons than Johnson, but the only reachable category if you evened tenures out would be wins.
In truth, had Evernham and Gordon remained together for a few more years — not quite to the length crew chief Chad Knaus was paired with Johnson (17 years) but longer than the seven years the Gordon-Evernham duo lasted — the statistical gap would be significantly wider. But that’s a topic to be broached on another day.