Yarborough, Johnson now share membership in an exclusive club.
Cale Yarborough no longer stands alone – now Jimmie Johnson, with his Cup championship win in November, stands alongside the legendary NASCAR racer as the only men ever to claim three consecutive titles in NASCAR’s premier division.
Johnson’s feat came 20 years after Yarborough retired and immediately brought comparisons to the Hall of Famer from Yarborough himself.
“I see a lot of me in Jimmie, and his driving style is a lot like my driving style was,” Yarborough says. “Jimmie is a dedicated driver and has a lot of dedicated competition he’s running against. What it takes to run races and win championships is having that dedication and determination to get it done.”
Johnson is honored simply to be mentioned in the same breath as Yarborough. “To find my name in the record books and be in the company of Cale in such an elite situation means the world to me,” Johnson says.
The champions achieved their glory in very different eras. By the time his storied career was on the books, Yarborough had scored 83 Cup wins, good enough for fifth on the all-time list. Four of those wins came in the Daytona 500; he mastered Talladega Superspeedway three times (and added an IROC win for good measure), and he also scored five top finishes at Darlington, which served as his “home track.”
“Darlington was pretty good to me,” Yarborough says, “but I was fortunate to win just about everywhere I raced. So really I have fond memories of them all. Those were some good days.”
His first year of Cup racing came in 1965, and he grabbed his first career checker that same season, winning the Valdosta 100 in Georgia. Needless to say, the best was yet to come.
Yarborough tallied a staggering 10 victories in both 1974 and 1978, and he claimed three consecutive Cup titles from 1976 through 1978. Aside from the wins there also were plenty of good starting spots. In fact, Yarborough snagged 70 pole positions before he was done.
“When Cale won the championship in 1976, he won five of the last 10 races,” says Jim Hunter, NASCAR vice president of corporate communications. “In 1977 he won two of the last 10 races. In 1978 he won four of the last 10 races. For those of you who don’t know Cale, he was one of the most tenacious drivers NASCAR has ever had. He seemed to be able to take a car that wasn’t handling very well and make the most of it, come out with a better finish than what the car might be capable of. That’s a trait that both he and Jimmie Johnson seem to share.”
In 2008 – with a NASCAR “playoff” in place – Johnson was solid if not spectacular through 26 races. It was the final 10 that composed the “Chase for the Cup,” and Johnson seemed to find a new year, quickly distancing himself from the competition.
Though Carl Edwards made a strong push, the final race of the year at Homestead was a mere formality to Johnson’s coronation.
In 2008 Johnson had seven victories and 15 top-five finishes.
In a mere eight years on the circuit he has 40 checkered flags and has earned a staggering $66,638,382. And, of course, three crowns.
“It’s pretty big,” Johnson says. “To win three of anything is pretty special. Seeing comments where I’ve mentioned I couldn’t say where I placed [in history], it wasn’t my place to say that. So when people notice what we have done and compare us to other teams in sports history, that’s special.”
Currently the late Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty are tied at the top of the Cup championship list with seven titles, while Jeff Gordon – Johnson’s friend and teammate at Hendrick Motorsports – is third on the list with four crowns.
After three straight titles Johnson is already being asked about the possibility of winning an unprecedented fourth in a row.
“It’s going to be tough,” Johnson says. “Amazing we’ve been able to do three and not be so focused on tomorrow or next year. The team’s been doing a great job, and I feel like with the changing times we’ve had with the old car, then a combination of the two cars in ’07 and the new car this year, we can stay on top of the change in the sport and stay competitive.”
And while Yarborough is now relaxing on his farm in South Carolina, Johnson has relaxed in his own way before resuming the rigors of another Cup campaign, soon to begin.
“My wife and I have been interested in Eastern Asia to explore and see Thailand and Bali and a bunch of areas,” Johnson said in November. “I don’t know much about these areas, but I see them in the magazines and have heard from friends who have traveled. I can’t pronounce them now, but I know I’ll come home much more in tune with it all and enjoying the experience.”