Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: Cale vs Jimmie

“One of the beauties of sports is the arguments.

  • Is player A better than player B?
  • Was it better back in the day or now?

It’s fun to argue and discuss, but for any argument it’s important to use the right context.

Raw numbers don’t work. You have to understand a number of other factors that affect the numbers.

Many people will say Babe Ruth was the greatest hitter in baseball history. There’s certainly an argument and numbers to support that, but Ruth played in an era where blacks were banned from the majors and the home run was initially regarded with disdain.

Does that make Ruth better than Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron or Josh Gibson?

Peyton Manning holds tons of passing records, but he also plays in an era when all teams pass 30-40 times a game. Is he better than Johnny Unitas because he has better numbers?

The Boston Celtics won eight straight rings in the 1960’s, but there were only nine teams in the league.

Jimmie Johnson equaled Cale Yarborough’s record of three straight championships. Who’s feat is more impressive?

According to Yahoo’s Jerry Bonkowski Johnson deserves an asterisk. I’m not here to say which era was tougher (although maybe when I have some time this winter), but let’s at least look at Bonkowski’s flawed criteria:

  • In winning his three straight titles, Yarborough didn’t have to go through the Chase format. He had to be great from the start of each season and carry that greatness through three consecutive 30-race schedules.

There is no question the old format required more consistency for an entire season, but this also assumes the two eras were equally competitive. I would argue that the level of competition in 2008 is quite a bit tougher than 1978. The fields were smaller, fewer drivers capable of winning races (more on that later).

  • During that 90-race span, Yarborough won 28 races – nearly one-third. He also had 70 top-five finishes. Johnson’s three-peat span covered 108 races, of which he won 22 – or less than one-fourth. He also had 48 top-five finishes – not even one-half.

This is not an equal comparison.

In the late 1970’s the fields were smaller-often with 30 or less entrants. Johnson faces 43 cars each week. With a 30% smaller field, the chances of capturing wins and top 5’s is greatly increased. From 1976 to 1978 only 11 drivers won races. 20 drivers have won races from 2006-2008. The top 5 drivers from 1976-1978 accounted for 58% of the top 5’s. During the Johnson Era, the top 5 drivers have garnered 39% of the top 5’s. That means there are more drivers currently capable of scoring top 5’s than in the late 1970’s.

  • Yarborough, on the other hand, had to be on his game from race No. 1. Every race mattered, every race counted and every race was a mini-championship within itself.

Two of Yarborough’s titles also came in dominating fashion: a 386 point margin in 1977 and a 474 point margin in 1978. He essentially killed off the title race several races early, so he didn’t really have to be anywhere near great in the closing races.

There is also the fact that one of the most successful drivers of the era, David Pearson, only drove 22 of 30 races in each of Yarborough’s winning years. In 1976, Pearson won a season-high 10 races and had an average finish of 6.9. For argument’s sake, if we award Pearson 146 points (7th place points) for 8 additional races he would have won the title.

Obviously it’s impossible to say what would have happened, but it does illustrate the difference in competition levels between the two eras.

  • While the Chase has served to add a bit of contrived spice and excitement during the part of the season that goes head-to-head with the NFL, it also has alienated scores of fans who have left the sport because of it. Many point out that the Chase has cost Jeff Gordon two more championships – and that it will forever keep him from tying or surpassing Petty and Earnhardt’s career championships record.

This is skewed as well.

That’s like saying if the NFL regular season determined the champion, then the Patriots would have hoisted the trophy last year.

It’s not like the rules were changed on Gordon in mid-season last year. And remember, Jimmie Johnson was dominating the points in 2004 until they began experimenting with engines prior to the Chase. Let’s also remember that under the old format, there were plenty of seasons when the winner built such a large lead they could essentially show up for the final month and still win a Cup.

Not every year was like 1992 when Alan Kulwicki won by ten points in the final race. Whether you think the Chase is contrived or not, please don’t act like the good old days produced door-to-door racing every Sunday all season long.

Again, I’m not trying to decide which era was tougher or not. Yarborough’s and Johnson’s feats are equally impressive. Yarborough faced smaller, weaker fields. Johnson has the Chase, the Lucky Dog and an era heavily reliant on technology dollars.

To say Johnson’s deserves an asterisk because there are different rules is ridiculous.

Richard Petty doesn’t have an asterisk for his pre-1972 wins when NASCAR was wildly different, so why should Johnson deserve one?”