1980, 2002, and 2021. What do all three of these dates have in common? All three were the key years in which there was a changing of the guard in NASCAR’s greatest drivers. Richard Petty won his seventh and final championship in 1979, one year before Dale Earnhardt would get his first of seven in 1980. Earnhardt would then carry the moniker of the best driver in NASCAR until his death in 2001 where Jimmie Johnson was one year away from starting his first full-time Cup series season.
Jimmie Johnson called his legendary career quits last season where he then gave his seat to Kyle Larson, a young driver with immense potential that has never been able to reach his peak. This season he is finally showing what he’s capable of and it has the potential to be greatness which we see once every twenty years. I want to go on record and say that Kyle Larson will be considered this generation’s Petty, Earnhardt, or Johnson.
Larson has been grinding in NASCAR to truly be considered one of the best drivers in the sport, but running in top-15 equipment comes with it’s own set of challenges. In his stint with Chip Ganassi Racing he was only able to get 6 wins in 8 seasons. He now has amassed half of his previous win total in Jimmie Johnson’s old ride.
He has been the fastest and to be quite honest the scariest driver in the field. Watching him yesterday at Sonoma, and seeing how he made no mistakes as Chase Elliott, the best road course driver in the series, was chomping away at him was one of the most impressive displays of driving I had seen all year. We can sit here and talk about how great Hendrick overall as a team is, but let’s not disrespect the fact that Larson has elevated this team to something we haven’t seen in a good minute.
While he still seems to be making minor mistakes with his patience inside the car, the results are undeniable and as we speak he is the championship favorite. What did Petty, Earnhardt, and Johnson all have in common that led them to near immortality? Seven championships. Seven titles is now the benchmark to even be in the conversation of greatest of all time. I believe Larson has that potential, but will he have a legitimate shot at winning seven titles? At 28-years old, he is younger than both Earnhardt and Johnson when they won their first, and only 2-years Petty’s elder when he won his. He has the time to do it, but winning titles is much harder than it ever has been.
The new playoff format doesn’t allow for any mistakes in a ten race stretch and a final battle in one race where even the slightest slip-up costs you a title. Since the formation of the playoffs, only one driver has ever won multiple championships in the format and that’s Kyle Busch. Going on a streak like Johnson did is near impossible in today’s age, but here is still plenty of room for domination with the right equipment and driver.
Time will tell how we measure this format when it comes to comparing it to championships back in the Winston Cup days or even in the Chase where Johnson got most of his titles. Perhaps we will look at one title in the playoff format as hard enough that winning four or five is equivalent to winning seven in the previous formats. If that becomes the case then it’s well within the realm of possibility that Larson can accomplish that considering he is looking to likely get his first this season.
I think many fans will be upset that I’m claiming it is Larson and not Chase Elliott that will lead NASCAR into the new era as it’s best driver, but I want to give Chase his due. He is a very talented driver who is for sure going to win more championships, break records, and make it to the Hall of Fame. I’m making the prediction that in twenty years time we will look at Elliott to Larson in the same way we look at Pearson to Petty, Waltrip to Earnhardt, and Gordon to Johnson. Elliott will be great, but not the best.
I will admit to potentially being a prisoner of the moment, but I’ve watched the talent Larson possesses behind the wheel, this isn’t just a fluke season. This is a driver who has finally been given the ignition to top tier equipment that is capable of getting the most out of a driver of his caliber.
This season will be a big tell in if my prediction comes true, because while him not winning the championship this season does not disprove it, seven championships becomes more lofty each year.