Yarborough Leaves Johnson In The Dust In Three-Peat Comparison

Jimmie Johnson’s win at Martinsville pushed him one step closer to capturing the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. More importantly, Johnson is just four races from clinching a third-straight Cup crown putting him in the rarified NASCAR air that now exclusively belongs to Cale Yarborough.

Yarborough is the lone driver to have won three consecutive Cup titles to date taking the 1976, 1977 and 1978 championships. Not two-time defending champions Buck Baker, Lee Petty, Joe Weatherly, David Pearson and Richard Petty before him, nor Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon and the late Dale Earnhardt (twice) since have been able to equal Yarborough’s three-peat.

Now it’s Johnson’s turn. If he can maintain or expand his 149-point margin over current runner-up Greg Biffle and keep the only others left in the title race – Jeff Burton (-152) and Carl Edwards (-198) – at bay, Johnson will secure his place at the head table in the NASCAR championship hall of fame.

But is Johnson as good as Cale was?

Those questions are always tough to answer thanks to different eras, playing conditions and equipment improvements. These variables apply in assessing past glories against those of current times in all sports, not just racing. It’s also the same in movies, music, art too. In today’s entertainment-driven world of hyperbole, comparing anything past and present almost always has the current model beating the tried and true history example. It has to be that way – everything today is the latest and greatest ever – if it wasn’t, why would we watch?

So, I repeat the question. Should Jimmie Johnson win a third-straight title, is he as good – or better – than Cale Yarborough was?

The best way I know how to swing at that high hard one is to look at the stat book and let the numbers speak for themselves.

Over the past three seasons, Johnson has competed in 104 Cup events winning an impressive 21 times (20 percent). His top-five (46 times – 44 percent) and top-10 (68 times – 65 percent) averages are outstanding.

Johnson’s potent Hendrick Motorsports Chevy has led 3,851 laps over the 104 events posting a 9.66 finishing average for the three-year period. His 10 poles over the span have led to a 10.43 qualifying average.

Simply stated, those are astonishing numbers in today’s modern sport of NASCAR. With the cars being as closely regulated and competitively even as they are now – from the front row to the back – Johnson’s finishing numbers are a testament as to just how good he and his team are. The championships are just the icing on the cake.

However, Johnson’s numbers – as stellar as they are – pale in comparison to Cale’s three-year championship spree.

NASCAR ran 30 events each season back in the early days of what we now refer to the ‘Modern Era’ of the sport – since 1972 when R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. rebranded the product and the schedule was reformulated. Over the 1976-78 seasons, Yarborough ran 90 Winston Cup events winning 28 of them (31 percent). He finished in the top-five in a whopping 70 of those races (77 percent) and was in the top-10 in 74 events (82 percent).

Yarborough and his Junior Johnson owned Holly Farms/1st National City Travelers Checks sponsored Chevy led a staggering 10,596 laps over those three seasons – a third of the total laps run during the period – posting an incredible 6.23 finishing average in the process. Cale also had 13 poles in three seasons notching an unheard of 3.17 starting position average.

If you just go by the numbers, Cale whips Jimmie hands down. More wins, top-five’s, top-10’s and poles in fewer events.

That’s about a good of a comparison as you are going to get. You can’t size up Johnson and Yarborough personally. Jimmie is quiet, thoughtful, polite. He’s tall and lean, has male model looks and oozes media savvy. However, he’d be the first one to tell you even he is amazed at his success. Cale, meanwhile, is direct and forceful. He will tell you he always thought he was the best and back in the day, he’d even fight you for it. A bulldog of a man, Yarborough was rough and brash during his driving career and if you were a member of the media and caught him at the wrong time, look out. The only salve here was for your wounds.

Like I said – different times make for interesting comparisons, but they don’t lead to any conclusions. In fact, about the only conclusion you can safely come to is that Johnson is a lot richer than Yarborough. If you count up all the coins each has won, Johnson is within a few quid of $37.5 million in prize money over his potential three-peat title run – that’s with four events still remaining this season and the possible championship bonus still to come.

Yarborough, meanwhile, earned $1,638,551 for three-straight championship seasons from 1976-78.


Sorry Cale.

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