Ahead of the class

Jimmie Johnson is a picture of cool. He also might be the best driver to ever race a car professionally. Getty Images

This article appears in the September 21 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Along the southern rim of uptown Charlotte, the NASCAR Hall of Fame's chrome, oval edifice is taking shape. But the Hall has one problem: If NASCAR really wants to induct its best drivers in the first class, in May 2010, the league must waive its "10 years of service, three years retired" eligibility requirements. Then we could all agree on the top four: Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, with David Pearson not too far behind. But the fifth -- with apologies to Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison -- has yet to put in 10 years and might not retire for another 10. So now is the time to recognize Jimmie Johnson for what he is: one of the greatest, if not the greatest, ever to flick a starter switch.

"The Hall of Fame?" Johnson ponders the notion as he sits in a folding chair tucked away in a corner of the Hendrick Motorsports race shop, staring through the floor beneath his feet. "If I was ever fortunate enough to be a Hall of Famer -- " Wait -- if? Johnson is interrupted to have his own résumé read to him. He's second only to Gordon among active full-time drivers in wins (43), Cups (three) and earnings ($80 million). No one has had a more dominant start to a career: Since 2002, his rookie season, he has led every major statistical category, and he enters the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup with a chance at NASCAR's first four-peat. Johnson just shakes his head. "I wanted to win a race," he says. "As in one. I guess I snuck up on people. Hell, I snuck up on me. Still do."

Can a sport really underestimate a three-time defending champ? We took a paddock straw poll of 25 drivers, mechanics, owners and media to rank the field across a variety of racing categories. Where Johnson ended up, almost always behind someone else, proved to be a surprise -- especially to Johnson. But in the end, even though the individual results got under his skin, they all add up to one thing: It's time to give JJ a Hall pass.

The Bullring Kings

ESPN The Magazine poll ranking order: (1) Kurt Busch; (2) Jeff Gordon; (3) Kyle Busch; (4) Tony Stewart; (5) Jimmie Johnson.

Here we are, just one category in, and already perception beats reality. The Busch brothers have taken their turns as the Kings of Bristol, and Gordon owns 15 short-track victories. But since 2002, Johnson has nine bullring wins to Kurt Busch's seven, Gordon's six and Kyle Busch's four; Stewart has just two. Although there's only one true short track on this year's Chase schedule, Martinsville on Oct. 25, care to guess which one Johnson likes best? "I have had a lot of success at Martinsville [five wins] and Richmond [three]," he says. "But Bristol is higher profile, and I haven't won there yet. Kurt and Kyle have dominated there, so has Jeff, but we've struggled. Maybe that's where the perception comes from."

To see more of the poll results from NASCAR insiders about where Jimmie Johnson and other current drivers rank -- as well as in a historical context -- you must be an ESPN Insider. Insider