Story by Patrick Reynolds. Photo courtesy Sporting News.

Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt. Jimmie Johnson.

Those three names under the seven-time Cup Champion topic are bringing either joyful smiles or head-shaking scowls to the faces of NASCAR fans. Petty and Earnhardt are broadly respected. Johnson’s name is where both happiness and disdain lie.

However, I have heard excuses and praises for each driver, with the slant going towards the preferred driver of the person sharing their racing expertise.

“Petty was the greatest.”

“No, Petty had no competition.”

Petty is debatably NASCAR’s best driver. He did race in a time where the reliability of the cars was nowhere near what they are today. Petty Enterprises should be given credit for building and maintaining their machines to be more reliable than a majority of the field.

Petty was very popular and earned his title ‘The King.’

“Earnhardt was the best.”

“No, Earnhardt wrecked everybody.”

A strong case can also be made for Earnhardt as NASCAR’s greatest driver. His ‘Intimidator’ style of racing sent more than one competitor home on the working end of a tow truck. The way Earnhardt drove, easily allowed fans to fall on one side of the fence or the other when it came to liking him. During driver introductions, thousands cheered and thousands booed, but few were silent.

Following his death, Earnhardt was revered by fans on both sides of that fence.

In 2016 Johnson equaled a feat only Petty and Earnhardt have accomplished in NASCAR’s premiere series. Johnson clinched his seventh championship. There has been much more scrutiny and negativity towards Johnson than even his first six crowns- and that is saying a lot.

It stems from this current title… the seventh… the one that tied him with the King and the Intimidator… sacrilege.

I believe the animosity for Johnson is misdirected. As a racing observer for over 40 years I have no ill feeling towards Johnson, Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports or any championship that he has achieved during his NASCAR tenure.

Johnson and team faced off against the very best NASCAR could throw at them since 2002. In fifteen years they won seven championships at NASCAR’s highest level. For that, I stand and applaud.

The anger from race fans should be directed towards where their dislike may really lay- with the Chase.

Petty and Earnhardt claimed their title in the traditional auto racing way, with season long tabulations of points. Petty’s championships were under different ways of calculating the actual numbers, both pre-and-post Latford systems. But both were traditional and more importantly- accepted.

Every single one of Johnson’s championships has come under a Chase style. His titles are linked to the Chase. The Chase is linked to his titles. Do you see where I am going?

Along the years of visiting auto racing pit areas and grandstands I have made quite a few friends along the way who have a deep passion for motorsports. I am hard pressed to name a single one of them who doesn’t absolutely laugh at this championship Chase system and shake their heads.

NASCAR faced exponential growth at one point. The attendance and fan numbers were there to make that claim.

Those numbers have decreased after the Chase was introduced. The attendance and fan numbers are also there to make that claim.

There are clearly other factors involved in attendance drops, but none more in control of NASCAR’s decision makers than the Chase.

Hate the game, not the player.

 I do not hate Johnson at all. Actually I admire him and am impressed by what he has accomplished. He is one of the greatest NASCAR drivers I have ever seen. Speak what you will about his Chase crowns, his race wins are not debatable.

As we head into the offseason he stands with 80 victories on Cup’s all-time win list, only four behind Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, three behind Cale Yarborough, and four ahead of Earnhardt. Jeff Gordon has 93 and David Pearson has 105. From what I have observed over his career, none of these numbers are unobtainable by Johnson.

For the record, I will not bash Knaus for being a cheater. Every team builds cars and presents their car for tech inspection under the same rulebook and under scrutiny from the same officials. Knaus is doing everything the crew chief of your favorite driver is doing. He is just doing it better.

Earnhardt and Petty did not design or have any say in what championship system they competed under. Neither did Johnson.

Earnhardt’s and Petty’s championship formats were universally accepted among auto racing fans. Johnson’s is not.

Johnson withstood and beat the competition for the last decade and a half. I can separate my admiration for Johnson and my dislike for the Chase. However many cannot make that distinction.

Rick Allen called him home under the Homestead checkered flag over the NBC broadcast, “Move over Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.” I have to stop short of making that claim on sheer numbers alone. The race fan in me falls a little shy in equaling a Chase championship to the ones before that system.

A Chase title to me does not carry as much weight as a season-long title. Johnson’s championships do not stack up equally against the traditional manner. If he had won seven titles in the season-long format we would not see the anti-Johnson crowd have such a large following. There would be much more respect shown to him.

If we ran the last 13 years under the Latford point system, Johnson may have zero championships. He may have 10. There is no way to know. Teams race the season a lot differently from one format to another.

The fact is Johnson started at Daytona with zero points like everyone else. He knew the system, like everyone else. He then went on to beat everyone else.

Petty, Earnhardt, and Johnson competed against the best NASCAR could throw at them in their time, and won.

Jimmie Johnson is one of the best drivers in NASCAR Cup during my lifetime.

However, the Chase is one of the biggest negatives in all of motorsports during my lifetime.

Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Speedway Report Mondays 7:30 pm ET/ 4:30 pm PT on Follow on Twitter @SpeedwayPat.