CONCORD, N.C. — In the pantheon of NASCAR champions, Jimmie Johnson assumed his place among the firmament that includes only Dale Earnhardt and “The King,” Richard Petty.
Is it too early to start thinking about the new season, when Johnson will suit up one more time and go chase a cloud of his own, one rung above the other two all-time legends of the sport?
Since it’s only January, it might be a touch presumptuous, but we can at least broach the subject. After all, Chad Knaus still has a title to go to catch Dale Inman, right?
When you think about it, equaling the record first set by Petty and later tied by Earnhardt is quite an accomplishment. Nobody ever thought anyone would get close to Petty’s record and then when Earnhardt tied him, it was a given that “The Intimidator” would surpass him. It didn’t happen.
Johnson and Knaus have welded together an impressive record over the years, one that is shaking the pillars of NASCAR’s heavens. It is all the more impressive since it is more difficult to win titles these days, given the winner-take-all finale at Florida’s Homestead-Miami Speedway. It’s the first title for Johnson under this format, and perhaps one of his most impressive. Sure, 80 victories — four more than Earnhardt but a full 120 behind Petty’s 200 — is impressive, but Petty’s all-time victory mark will never fall. Ever.
So that leaves championships.
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Johnson, at 41, is a year younger than Petty was when he won No. 7, and two years younger than Earnhardt. Check.
Johnson, as are most of today’s drivers, is a workout warrior and neither of the other seven-timers, to my knowledge, ever completed a triathlon, a marathon or even a 5k. Not a slam on either Petty or Earnhardt, it’s just a fact.
These days, drivers tend to retire quicker than those in Petty’s era and Earnhardt’s. It was common for drivers in those eras to race into their 50s. Petty did so, and Earnhardt was 49 when he died in a crash during the 2001 Daytona 500. So that’s a mark in Johnson’s favor.
Can he win it? Well, for starters, he’s already won seven of them, so that answer is a rousing, “of course!” Will he? Well, time will tell. Motivation? What was the motivation for climbing Mt. Everest? Another “of course!”
He has sponsorship from Lowe’s, for life, it appears. He has the support of team owner Rick Hendrick, for life, it appears, just like Jeff Gordon has. He has his longtime partner in crime, Knaus, calling the shots, the best equipment in the garage — though that gap is narrowing of late — and a plan for the next however many years to get it done.
In all the years I’ve been doing this, I can’t remember a time when this much NASCAR history was on the line. Gordon passed all the way up to third on the all-time victory list and Johnson is just 13 behind him going into this season. To get to No. 2, Johnson has to win 26 races. It probably won’t happen, but then again, I’ve been wrong before.
The sky is indeed the limit for “Seven-Time III.” He has his team intact, his motivation refreshed and his spot in history assured. He can take his time going after No. 8 and if he doesn’t, somehow, get it, there’s not a thing wrong with retiring without it.
Just like Gordon before him, Johnson has a lovely wife and young family at home. He’s financially set for two or three lifetimes, and like Alexander the Great, he’s running out of stuff to conquer. How long will he stay in the saddle and keep trying for No. 8? For as long as he wants and not a moment longer, unless I miss my guess.
As with most things, we will see what we will see. Johnson still has a fire in the belly and opportunity in front of him. Doing what he’s done already has guaranteed him first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Fame induction, and now it’s just a matter of finding the right time to let go.
Congratulations, “Seven-Time.” You earned it.