NASCAR's all-time greats on the track right now

Every sport has a golden age but people seldom realize it at the time.

Boxing had the ages of Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. Golf had the age of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Later came the age of Tiger.

Basketball had the age of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlin. Later came the era of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Then came the days of Michael Jordan.

Football had its magic times with Joe Montana, Roger Staubach, Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas. Major League Baseball enjoyed glory during the times of Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth.

NASCAR legends Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Cale Yarborough cast long shadows.

But in this world of instant gratification, 24-hours news cycles and the internet with it's blogosphere, Twitter and FaceBook, do fans realize some of the greats are among us today, rewriting the record books and establishing a standard that makes those legendary, mythical performer's achievements look almost ordinary? Do we romanticize the achievements of past heroes to a level that raises them to a standard that no one today can measure up to, even as today's stats far exceed those of yesteryear?

In the rain-delayed race in Atlanta on Tuesday, a fierce, epic battle for the ages was waged by four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and five-time champ Jimmie Johnson. Gordon won as Johnson tried everything, slipping and sliding at 190 mph but always under control in the frantic final laps trying to catch his teammate.

In doing so, Gordon moved into sole possession of third place in the NASCAR career win column as he scored his 85th win. It broke a tie with Allison and Waltrip.

But in the mind's eye it seems many fans still hold the older driver in greater regard. The NFL Films screen in our head mythologizes Petty, Pearson, Earnhardt, Allison, Waltrip, Yarborough and the rest as they move in slow-motion grainy black-and-white images, larger-than-life.

This is not to compare drivers or generations. It is to ask if Gordon and Johnson belong among the gods of the sport?

My answer is ... absolutely.

Greatness sits behind the wheel of today's NASCAR Sprint Cup race cars. Greatness, as in the "... of all times," type of greatness. Go to a race, tune in on TV, and you can tell your grandkids about two of the all-time greats.

Like Ruth or DiMaggio. Nicklaus or Tiger. Montana or Staubach. Ali or Louis. Jordan or Magic.

Or Petty, Pearson, Allison, Waltrip, Earnhardt, Yarborough, Gordon or Johnson.

The thing we love about sports -- whether yesterday or today -- is that it is the golden time of sports, certainly for NASCAR, if we would only fully realize it.