Team owner Rick Hendrick never thought he’d see the day when one of his drivers earn 76 victories — let alone two.
While Johnson did not reach the milestone as quickly as Jeff Gordon, who accomplished the feat in 2007 when he won from the pole at Phoenix in his 481st career Sprint Cup start, what the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy has been able to accomplish in 15 seasons is impressive.
In 12 years, Johnson became the first driver in the Sprint Cup era and just the third driver in the history of NASCAR to win six championships. On Sunday, in his 509th Cup start, the 40-year-old El Cajon, California-native became just the eighth driver to reach 76 wins.
"One of the best that's ever been"
“I really wasn't aware of that today until the end of the race,” Hendrick said of Johnson reaching the mark. “I think when you look at Jimmie's career and you look at how quick he's gotten to 76 and he's got six championships, I think you've got to say that he's one of the best that's ever been in the sport.”
“You know, it means a lot to him and a lot to all of us. We're all big Earnhardt fans, but it's going to be interesting to see how many races and championships Jimmie and Chad can win.”
There’s not a bigger Earnhardt fan in the Hendrick camp than Dale Earnhardt Jr. The son of the late seven-time champion treasured the moments he spent with his father on and off the track.
Dale Jr. speaks of Jimmie Johnson's character
But the driver of the No. 88 Chevy has tremendous respect for his teammate and what he’s been able to accomplish since breaking into the Xfinity Series in 2000. His most admirable trait, according to Earnhardt, is Johnson’s ability to remain true to himself.
“I thought that when he won five championships in a row, he’s pretty good,” Earnhardt said. “I don't have a problem calling him the best of this generation even as a competitor of his and having to go out there and race against him. Obviously he will credit his crew chief and his team. That all has been real consistent throughout his career, and they do deserve some credit, but Jimmie is just a phenomenal talent.
“One of the things about Jimmie that I think he doesn't get enough credit for is that he's the same Jimmie that I knew when he drove the 59 Charcoal car at St. Louis as he is today, even after all this success. He's a guy that you can walk up to, he's approachable, he's real easy‑going. All the success didn't change him much. He just has a little bit more money in his pocket now than he did then, but he certainly doesn't act any different.
“He doesn't get enough credit for that, because I don't know if I won five in a row, that would probably change me a little bit or anybody else. But it's amazing, he's really down to earth, so you like to see him do well. Obviously he's my teammate, love seeing him do well. When he does well, we learn, we get better. It's been awesome being in his shop and sharing a shop with Chad because I think that's helped my career. So I definitely enjoy working with Jimmie, and very proud of him.”
How to handle the moment
Out of respect to Earnhardt, Johnson discussed how he should handle the moment in advance. Although the fans offered Gordon little pushback when he reached the mark at Phoenix, after he scored his 77th victory at Talladega the following race the reception wasn’t nearly as warm.
“I talked to Dale six months ago or a while ago, last year at some point about it, and I also talked to Jeff,” Johnson said. “I was shocked that he had a little bit of backlash when he flew the 3 flag in Phoenix, and I was like, really, why?
“So I just made sure that I spoke to Junior a little bit, and he shared with me that he really feels like his dad would have had a ton of respect for me and would have enjoyed racing against me, and we would have had a great friendship.
“Kind of covering that base with Dale a while ago helped me, and with the confusion of how overtime works, I kind of forgot that that win was 76 and then it hit me after I had taken the checkered flag and was doing my victory lap, so I had to come back around and certainly wanted to pay respect to Dale.”
Earnhardt’s only suggestion for when Johnson tied the record was that “he'd better say something cool.”
“And he'd better tell them that it's awesome for him to tie him, because I know Jeff had the flag and all that, so that was awesome when your competitors and peers recognize your father like that,” Earnhardt added.
“I knew this day was coming, but I didn't know it until we got out of the car. I'm glad if he's going to win and tie that record, I'm certainly glad that I got to run second today.”
One thing Jimmie Johnson will never get to do as a NASCAR driver
Johnson, who didn’t make his Cup debut until eight months after Dale Earnhardt’s passing, has been vocal about the void left by the seven-time champion in the sport. Despite Johnson’s accomplishments, racing against Earnhardt is something he had always hoped to do.
“I think dad would have liked Jimmie as a person, but he certainly wouldn't have enjoyed competing against him,” Earnhardt said. “I don't think any of us really ‑‑ I mean, I love when we race door to door, but when he goes out there and spanks you it's not a lot of fun.
“You know, knowing dad and knowing Jimmie's character, they would have gotten along tremendously and dad would have thought the world of him. He said he felt the same way about Jeff when Jeff came in. He had nothing but awesome things to say about Jeff when Jeff was a rookie and they ended up becoming great friends and working together in businesses away from the racetrack and doing things together, so they definitely trusted each other, but they're definitely tough competitors on the track.
“But Jimmie, how can you not like Jimmie? He's just a good guy that never stepped over the line with anything he's ever said or anything he's ever did, so I think it's awesome to praise him.”