Years ago during the peak of his NASCAR career, one of the knocks on Jimmie Johnson from fans was that he won too much. It was natural. Repeated greatness has a way of alienating some folks who are tired of seeing him in Victory Lane again and again.
Now the uproar, upon his crowning election Wednesday to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, is that he didn’t win by enough.
Johnson was a sure-fire choice for induction into the stock-car shrine with the Class of 2024, and he was announced Wednesday alongside his longtime crew chief Chad Knaus from the Modern Era Ballot. Donnie Allison was the pick on the Pioneer Ballot, and Janet Guthrie was honored as the recipient of the Landmark Award.
In Johnson’s case, the honor should not come as a great surprise for one of only three seven-time Cup Series champions. What was a shock to some was seeing the tabulated totals of the 57 ballots cast and noting that the percentage fell short of 100. Johnson was named on 93 percent of the ballots, meaning that four voters omitted him.
The only other drivers to reach seven Cup titles are Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, who were inducted to the inaugural class in 2010 when vote tallies were not released. The numbers for subsequent classes have been made public, and Jeff Gordon — a four-time champ and one of NASCAR’s all-time greats — reached the highest known total of 96 percent with his election for the Class of 2019.
When asked Wednesday afternoon, Johnson handled the sticky wicket with his usual grace, saying “it doesn’t matter” that the vote that sealed his enshrinement was not unanimous. Knaus, however, pounced on the suggestion that the balloting totals produced a baffling result.
“Extremely. I remember there was somebody when Gordon went in, and I don’t know, it was a big story where they said that somebody voted against or didn’t pick Gordon because they didn’t want it to be unanimous,” Knaus said, before pointing to Johnson, seated to his right in a director’s chair. “If this man right here isn’t a unanimous vote, I don’t know if anybody ever will be. I mean, he’s the nicest guy, the best race car driver ever to sit a NASCAR race car, a huge contributor or sport, contributes to society in so many different ways with the Jimmie Johnson Foundation. He is the ideal picture of a Hall of Fame inductee.”
Apparently, not to all, and not enough to set the precedent of unanimity. Reckon it shouldn’t be astonishing. Try to get 60-odd people to all agree on one thing. That also seems unprecedented — in NASCAR and in society in general. Personal biases are bound to creep in, and Knaus said as much. When told he was left off 11 ballots, leaving him with an 81-percent take of the vote, the other seven-time champ in the room said: “Those are people that I made upset along the way, I’m sure.”
The other matter concerns Johnson’s eligibility. It’s been two full seasons since he last competed full-time in the Cup Series, but his return with a limited schedule this year may have muddled his nomination for some voters. Still, part-time comebacks on a bigger scale didn’t stop Gordon or Matt Kenseth from reaching eligibility on a similar timetable. Johnson’s appearance on the ballot comes through no fault of his own. Holding that against him seems foolhardy, but may have factored in.
The other theory lies with voting strategy, the reasoning that if Johnson is a lock, better to throw support toward another Hall of Fame hopeful who may need it more. With respect to the class’s other vote-earners — all worthy candidates who will likely clear the bar for enshrinement one day — a handful of ballots cast with this rationale weren’t going to propel them past the finish line, not this year.
NASCAR hasn’t had a repeat Cup Series champion since Johnson’s unmatched run of five straight from 2006-10. Only two drivers — Kyle Busch and reigning champ Joey Logano have multiple titles since then, and Johnson’s benchmark seems every bit as unbreakable a record as Richard Petty’s 200 wins.
It seems unlikely that another candidate with Johnson’s credentials will come along — not soon, and maybe not ever. Part of that belief stems from the current era, with such seeming parity and a playoff system that makes the path to sustained championship runs more difficult. The other plank is Johnson’s singular talent that established him as a legend for all time.
Worth repeating are Knaus’ words: “If this man right here isn’t a unanimous vote, I don’t know if anybody ever will be.”
Seems accurate, 100 percent.