Though Jimmie Johnson has won the last five Sprint Cup championships, his peers don't all believe he's the most talented driver.
Or even the second-most.
In a survey of 34 Sprint Cup drivers taken over the course of this year, we asked a simple question: "Who is the most talented driver in NASCAR?"
Though the vote was close, the drivers selected Tony Stewart as the most talented, with Kyle Busch a close second. Johnson was third.
"That's a huge honor," Stewart said when told of the results. "That's voted on by the guys you're racing wheel-to-wheel with every week, so it's a huge honor."
Asking the drivers to select the best racer among their peers turned out to be a more difficult question than it may seem.
Some answered right away. Some waffled. Some couldn't (or wouldn't) come up with any specific names.
When the results were finally tallied, the vote was mostly split among the top three: 10.5 votes for Stewart, 9.5 for Kyle Busch and seven for Johnson (four others got one vote apiece; three drivers didn't want to answer).
Though there's a clear consensus on the three most talented drivers, there wasn't an obvious choice for which one of them is the best of the best.
Those who picked Stewart (a group that included Johnson) cited his ability to drive any type of car – stock, open-wheel and sprint – and win at a variety of circuits.
"He can drive everything," Kasey Kahne said. "When it all comes down it, Tony can win at any track. He's very competitive. Like, when he's just completely into racing, I think he's the best driver we've got."
Jeff Gordon, who split his vote between Busch and Stewart, said when Stewart is motivated to race hard, "I think Tony is one of the most talented drivers I've ever raced against."
Said Denny Hamlin: "He's been successful in every type of car he's been in. It doesn't matter whether it's a dirt car, IndyCar or stock car – he's won championships and been good at it."
Some of Stewart's other voters included Elliott Sadler, Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth.
Those who picked Kyle Busch – a group which included drivers such as Sam Hornish Jr., Marcos Ambrose and Clint Bowyer – praised him for his raw talent.
"As much as it pains me to say it, (it's) probably Kyle Busch," David Reutimann said. "I kind of think the results speak for themselves, you know? It seems like everything he sits in, he goes fast in."
The Johnson voters couldn't overlook the Southern California driver's unprecedented run of Sprint Cup championships. Those who picked Johnson included former champion Bobby Labonte, Greg Biffle and Robby Gordon.
"Everybody at this level is a really good race car driver," David Gilliland said. "You probably don't realize that enough until you're here and competing against them. I remember watching it as a kid and thinking the 25th-place guy wasn't very good, but that's not the case at all.
"What (Johnson) has been able to do with championships and some of the stuff he's been able to get himself out of during some of the races is very impressive."
The thought here is some drivers resisted picking Johnson (despite the five straight Cups) because of the same mentality some fans share: They believe Johnson is part of a great team and also give much of the credit to his crew chief, Chad Knaus.
Ambrose, who picked Busch, observed a difference between being the "best" and being the "most talented."
"If you just look at history, Jimmie Johnson – cool, calm, quiet, a guy with four championships in a row – is clearly the best," he said during the season. "Results-wise, he's kicked everyone's butt. It probably will never be repeated in our lifetime, and especially in this generation.
"As far as a pure talent, just being spectacular to watch, Kyle Busch is always on the edge. He's exceptional to watch him get around the racetrack. Some days you can pass him and some days he's lapping you. He's a talent."
Stewart, asked for his pick of the most talented NASCAR driver, didn't pick any of the top three.
"I think Juan Montoya (is the most talented)," Stewart said. "But I'm looking outside of the Cup realm, too. Across the board, I think he's one of the most talented guys I've ever raced with."
Voting results for "Most Talented Driver" (out of 34 Sprint Cup Series drivers)
1. Tony Stewart – 10.5 votes
2. Kyle Busch – 9.5 votes
3. Jimmie Johnson – 7 votes
4. Juan Pablo Montoya, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch – 1 vote
(Three drivers did not/could not name anyone specifically)