Gordon soon could enter new debate

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF

   Only eight seasons in NASCAR's premier series, Jeff Gordon is on the verge of winning a fourth Winston Cup Championship. If he does indeed win the 2001 title, only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, each won seven NASCAR crowns, will be ahead of Gordon on the all-time list.
   Gordon also is leading the circuit with six wins. If he maintains that lead, the Rainbow Warrior will be the season leading winner for a sixth time in his career. That is only one shy of Petty's all-time record of seven. If you are curious, Earnhardt led the series in wins two times, 1987 and 1990.
   Add into the mix, a career winning percentage of 20.4 percent that trails only Tim Flock's who won 21.2% of the races he entered.
   Over the years, Gordon has successfully changed his driving style, from one that resembled the sandbagging of David Pearson, to one like Petty's. Just like The King in his heyday, Gordon has become the best in the business at searching the race track and finding the fastest groove.
   Gordon has also received much of the same criticism reserved for Petty over the years that he wins only because he has the best car. That argument may have been valid two seasons ago, when Gordon teamed with mastermind crew chief Ray Evernham and his team more often than not won the battle off pit road.
   Now, Gordon is tasting similar success with former Petty crew chief Robbie Loomis and has left no doubt that he currently is the best stock car driver in the business.
   In a recent Internet poll of fans of all forms of motorsports, Gordon beat open wheel star Juan Montoya by over a margin of five to be voted as the best racer in the world.
   Soon, Gordon will have to be seriously considered for a new debate. If he continues the current rate of success, Jeff Gordon will have to be mentioned along with Petty, Earnhardt, Pearson and Bobby Allison in the debate for the greatest NASCAR driver of all-time.
   Speaking of all-time greats, we continue the official NHRA countdown of its 50 greatest drivers.
   NHRA'S 50 GREATEST DRIVERS -- NO. 7: WARREN JOHNSON
   It is ironic that Warren Johnson, a man who playfully disparages his own driving ability, should be honored as one of drag racing's 50 greatest drivers.
   Johnson's steely determination and his relentless work ethic were forged as a young man growing up on a hard-scrabble farm in Minnesota's aptly named Iron Range. Johnson recalls. "Growing up on a farm was a great education for a youngster with an interest in mechanical things."
   Johnson's standing as the preeminent engine developer, the predominant team owner, and the deepest thinker in Pro Stock is unquestioned. But a great driver? Not in Warren's world, where drivers are as disposable as spark plugs.
   "Driving just comes with the territory," says the man who has won the most Pro Stock races in NHRA history. "Outthinking the competition is what appeals to me."
   That is the essence of this most unlikely of drag racing stars, a 58-year-old, silver-haired grandfather who prefers the intellectual challenge of the sport to the adrenaline rush of competition. Drag racing lore does not record who first hung the sobriquet "the Professor" on Warren Johnson, but the nickname was a perfect fit.
   "The Professor's" most successful student is his son, Kurt, a 22-time national event winner and the first Pro Stock driver to run a six-second elapsed time.
   Despite Johnson's objections, the NHRA record book testifies to his considerable skill behind the wheel. He stands at the head of the Pro Stock class in every statistical category: victories, final rounds, No. 1 qualifying times, low elapsed times, and top speeds.
   With a professional racing career that spans four decades and also includes back-to-back IHRA championships, Johnson has achieved the status of senior statesman in the sport.
   He is a racing encyclopedia who has competed in 84 percent of the Pro Stock races contested in NHRA history. Johnson has qualified for every race since the 1987 Gatornationals - a remarkable 15-year streak. In a class where horsepower reigns supreme, Johnson is the undisputed king of speed, having recorded the fastest run in more than half of the races since 1982.
   Johnson utterly dominated Pro Stock in the 1990s, winning five championships. When he didn't win the championship, he finished second or third. The GM driver claimed four consecutive U.S. Nationals crowns from 1992 to 1995 and ended the decade with his sixth career Indy title in 1999.
   W.J. reached drag racing's last great milestone with his barrier-breaking 200-mph run in April 1997. In 1999, he made history again by running the top speed at every event on the calendar.
   With a sixth championship in sight, W.J. shows no sign of slowing down. Dismissing talk of retirement he declares. "I enjoy what I'm doing. I'm having more fun than one person should be allowed to have."