I know this will cause some arguments, but before I start I want to state that I am a Jeff Gordon fan. I have liked Gordon since 2002 when I started watching racing (I was 8 at the time). To this day Gordon is one of my favorite drivers on track, and I do indeed believe Gordon is a legend on many levels. By discussing this topic I am going to be as neutral as I can. To readers who are bias towards Gordon or Johnson I ask you to have an open mind. Many may say I am not a real fan after this, but to those people I say, that I am a big fan, but a realistic one as well. So here we go...
Jeff Gordon, a four time champion, winner of 92 points races (3rd all time), and the ideal driver on-and-off the track. Gordon revolutionized NASCAR, by opening the doors to western drivers such as Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch. Without Gordon who knows if traditional open wheel drivers would have ever made a mark in NASCAR. NASCAR would look completely different without Gordon, and that is a FACT, not an opinion. Gordon has been running full-time since 1993, and has never missed one event. During the process he has ran up front and contended for wins at every track.
Gordon and his 4 Winston Cup Series championship trophies
Jimmie Johnson, a six time champion, and winner of 72 events, and a clone of what Jeff Gordon use to be. Johnson was basically unknown before 2002, then all of a sudden Gordon and Rick Hendrick team up to create the #48 team. Gordon noticed Johnson, when Johnson beat him back to the line in a Xfinity race (Busch at the time), and believed the young man had talent. Since 2002, Johnson has created his own legacy, including winning as astonishing 5 Sprint Cup Championships in a row (NASCAR record). Johnson has left his mark on the sport, and will continue to run up front for the remaining of his career.
Jimmie Johnson and his 6 Sprint Cup Series championship trophies
After reviewing both drivers, lets get into the match up of both NASCAR heavyweights. I want to look at on track, off track, and impact on the sport. At the end I will try my best to make a decision on who is better, considering I am still on the fence myself. So lets start.
First, on track. Gordon has started 771 Cup Series events (as of May 5, 2015), where he has won 92 (11.9%), 321 top-5's (41.6%), and 460 top-10's (59.6%). On top of that add in 80 career poles, 3 All-Star wins, and 5 Gatorade Duel victories. Gordon has been competitive ever since he has stepped foot in a stock car. In 23 years Gordon has finished in the top-5 in points 10 times, and the top-10, 20 times. Even in down seasons, Gordon has managed to perform on a consistent basis. Gordon's worst points finish is 14th in his rookie season, and since then Gordon has finished 11th or higher in every season. Gordon has led 24,825 of 221,539 laps ran (11.2%), is 3rd on the all-time wins list, and a 4-time champion (1995, 1997, 1998, 2001).
Jeff Gordon celebrates after winning at Kansas Speedway in 2014
On the opposing side, Johnson has started 481 races, where he has won 72 wins (14%), 199 top-5's (41.3%), and 299 top-10's (62.1%). Johnson has won 33 poles, 4 All-Stars, and 2 Gatorade Duels. Johnson has been the definition of consistency when considering his points finishes. In 14 seasons, Johnson has finished 5th or higher in the standings 12 times, and 10th or higher 13 times. His worst points finish is three positions higher than Gordon's, 11th. Johnson has led 17,505 of 138,097 laps (12.6%). Johnson currently sits 8th on the all-time wins list, and a 6-time champion, including a record setting 5 in a row.
So to answer the question of who is better on track, I say Johnson is better. Don't get me wrong I know Johnson's percentages will go down as he ages, just like Gordon's did, but Johnson has been better overall. I know many Gordon fans will raise hell with this, but the numbers don't lie. I am not saying Johnson is totally better, but edges Gordon out by a tiny margin. Johnson has more championships, and I personally believe Johnson will hit 100 wins before he retires. Johnson has just been better over the last 10-15 years. Fans will argue that Gordon has done it for longer, but that is not a legitimate argument. Give Johnson another 8-10 years, and Johnson may have better numbers in all categories. Johnson's consistent finishes in the final standing put him ahead of Gordon, and his dominance has lasted for a longer period of time. Now, of course no one can answer if Johnson could beat the Gordon of the 90's, but since that comparison can't be made, we have to go by the numbers. Numbers show Johnson to be the more dominant driver.
Jimmie Johnson celebrates winning his 6th Sprint Cup Championship in 2013
Second, off track. Gordon has always been known for handling sponsors and fans very well, and so has Johnson. Both have fallen into the mold of perfect drivers, that can perform on track and interact off. This is a factor that a driver needs to have in order to be the full package. Deciding this category is tough, but no where near as tough as the first category. I say Gordon is better off track, considering how many TV shows, sponsor appearances, and fan events, Gordon has attended. Gordon has a natural personality and has always been portrayed as a driver that will sign autographs and take pictures with fans as long as he has the time.
Lastly, impact on the sport. Gordon wins this category hands down. Jeff Gordon is the reason for someone like Jimmie Johnson. Before Gordon, NASCAR was about good ole southern boys, and with the emergence of the #24 this stereotype changed. Gordon was young, good-looking, and had a great personality, that put the sport in the spotlight. The rivalry with Dale Sr. fueled one of the best fan battles in history, and helped the sport peak to all-time highs. Gordon may very well be the driver that has revolutionized NASCAR the most. Without him you may not see Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, the Busch brothers, and the list goes on. Gordon still inspires young drivers to this day. Drivers like Chase Elliot, Kyle Busch, and Kyle Larson, have all admitted that Gordon was their favorite driver and that he is part of the reason they wanted to be a part of NASCAR.
Jeff Gordon (#24) and Jimmie Johnson (#48) racing side-by-side at Daytona
Well, there you go. Trust me it hurts to think that Gordon is not technically the best driver on the track anymore. Again, I am a real fan, but I am realistic! Looking at the numbers, Johnson has left a better reputation in terms of on track performance. At this rate, Johnson looks to eventually break the record for most titles (7), and has a great chance to score over 100 wins before things are said and done.
Overall, Gordon has done more for NASCAR, team Hendrick, and racing in general. If I am picking a driver to simply win races in 2015 I am picking Johnson, but if I am picking a driver to for a legacy I am picking Gordon. That's the only way I know how to say it. This was not made to say Gordon is not a great driver, he is. Gordon is one of the greatest of all-time, but so is Johnson. Most fans don't give Johnson the credit he deserves. Both men will go down as top-5 drivers in history, and both will be remembered as great drivers, champions, and even better human beings.