Jimmie Johnson celebrates 6th title with eye on a 7th

Let the debate begin.

Jimmie Johnson celebrates 6th title with eye on a 7th

Even as Jimmie Johnson speeds through Champion's Week and enjoys his coronation in Las Vegas, the focus of those who compete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and those who follow it, even peripherally, already has begun to move toward 2014.

The sport will fete Johnson throughout the week, culminating in Friday night's 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards at Wynn Las Vegas. The drivers who finished second through 10th in the final standings will express the appropriate respect and admiration for Johnson's milestone sixth championship.

But the real milestone lies ahead, and everyone knows it.

Now that Johnson has won a sixth title, can he add a seventh? Can he tie the series record shared by two of the sport's icons, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt?

If Johnson does tie the record, next year or thereafter, will he be revered at the level of the two legends who preceded him?

The debate is certain to be lively, as with other sports. Was Hank Aaron the equal of Babe Ruth? Could Muhammad Ali have beaten Rocky Marciano? Was Bobby Jones the greatest golfer of all time? Or was Jack Nicklaus? Or Tiger Woods?

Questions of Johnson's rightful place in racing history will surface again and again as he celebrates his sixth championship in eight seasons. They will dog him at Wednesday's Fanfest at the Fremont Street Experience. They will follow him to Thursday's NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon and the interview sessions that follow.

Doubtless the subject will come up during the popular NASCAR After the Lap at the Palms Casino Resort on Thursday afternoon. And you can be certain the questions will be raised at Friday's awards ceremony.

Nonetheless, Johnson would prefer to defer the discussion, at least for a little while.

"I don't want to focus on that yet," Johnson said Nov. 17 after the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "It's not time. I want to unplug, enjoy the sixth, let it soak in. We'll get to Daytona for testing soon enough (Jan. 9). I guess by then it's probably appropriate to ask the question.

"I'm humbled by the nice things that have been said by competitors and owners, my peers in this industry. I think their opinion is very important. I don't think my opinion matters. It's not for the athlete, the driver. It's bestowed upon you. It's passed down from others."

Those others already have started to speak. Homestead race winner Denny Hamlin allowed that Johnson might be the greatest ever.

Kyle Busch, who finished fourth in the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, admits he's still searching for a way to beat Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus, the No. 48 team and the exceptional performance of the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization.

"It's really tough, when you end the Chase (55 points out), or something like that, and you go back and you make up your 'fake' finishes," Busch said the day after the final race at Homestead. "Give us 10th at Kansas. Give us fifth at Martinsville. Give us second at Texas.

"If you give us those finishes back, we're still 20 short of the championship. Legitimately, if we could have ran and finished how well we could have done -- perfect scenario -- we were still 20 short of the championship. We would have finished right behind Matt Kenseth, third in points."

Small wonder Busch and fellow NASCAR Sprint Cup competitors are singing Johnson's praises . "If others are saying it, I'm not going to deny it, chase it away," Johnson said. "Sure, I would love to be considered (one of the greatest). If you look at stats, there's still numbers out there that I need to achieve. That's why I say, until I hang my helmet up, it's not necessarily a fair conversation to have."

Those numbers, with the clear exception of Petty's unassailable 200 NASCAR Sprint Cup victories, are well within Johnson's reach. The most obvious is the seventh title, but Johnson has other milestones within his reach.

In his first 12 full seasons, Johnson has accumulated 66 wins, eighth most all-time and within striking distance of all but Petty and David Pearson (105 wins). In addition to winning six championships, Johnson has finished second twice, third once, fourth once, fifth once and sixth once, a remarkable run of sustained excellence in NASCAR's most competitive era.

Whether it's in celebration or in competition, Johnson prefers to stay in the moment, but that will become increasingly difficult if he makes a concerted run at a seventh championship in 2014. As usual, Johnson plans to combat the distraction with a singleness of purpose.

"To have expectations to win championships is unfair," Johnson said two days after the season finale. "I think it's more realistic to expect an opportunity at a championship. To win, that's a whole different story.

"I made the Chase every year it's been around (starting in 2004), so I've had that opportunity. I take a lot of pride in that. My motivation to follow through this year and to work as hard as I can really is the same motivation I've always had to succeed in this sport.

"I've worked so hard and long to get to this point, I'm finally on top of my game. I've worked a lifetime to get here. There's more motivation staying on top for those reasons than chasing stats and the historical things that are out there in front of me now, it's really something that comes from within."

And yet, with all the buzz surrounding a possible seventh championship, Johnson allowed himself a moment to reflect on what a seventh title might mean.

"I could never have dreamed this big," Johnson said during a tour of Las Vegas media outlets on Tuesday. "When I hear my name mentioned alongside Petty and Earnhardt, it still feels surreal."

NASCAR

shares
comments
Day two: heaters, cases, prizes and laughs make for memorable Fanfest in Vegas
Previous article

Day two: heaters, cases, prizes and laughs make for memorable Fanfest in Vegas

Next article

Mobil 1™ and Stewart-Haas Racing extend partnership

Mobil 1™ and Stewart-Haas Racing extend partnership
Load comments
How Larson took the long way round to NASCAR Cup glory Prime

How Larson took the long way round to NASCAR Cup glory

From villain to hero, Kyle Larson had to reach his lifelong goal the hard way and go through a very public shaming after a ban for using a racial slur, but his talents shone long before his name grabbed the headlines...

NASCAR Cup
Nov 10, 2021
How NASCAR is gearing up for its "biggest change" in 2022 Prime

How NASCAR is gearing up for its "biggest change" in 2022

It’s not just Formula 1 that’s set for upheaval in 2022, as the NASCAR Cup series adopts its Next Gen cars that will cast any in-built advantages aside and require teams to adopt a totally new way of operating. Far more than just a change of machinery, the new cars amount to a shift in NASCAR's core philosophy

NASCAR Cup
Oct 12, 2021
Why Bubba Wallace’s Talladega win is such a big moment for NASCAR Prime

Why Bubba Wallace’s Talladega win is such a big moment for NASCAR

Bubba Wallace claimed his maiden NASCAR Cup Series at Talladega on Monday to become the first Black victor in the category since Wendell Scott in 1963. Both Wallace and Scott had faced obstacles and racism in their paths to their breakthrough wins, and NASCAR is trying to put it right with its range of diversity programmes

NASCAR Cup
Oct 5, 2021
Why NASCAR's most resilient driver has landed on his feet at 23XI Prime

Why NASCAR's most resilient driver has landed on his feet at 23XI

In a career that has had many ups and downs, Kurt Busch has been written off many times before. But facing career uncertainty after the sale of Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team, the 2004 Cup champion has found a new berth at Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan's 23XI organization - which underlines his enduring value

NASCAR Cup
Aug 31, 2021
From the archive: Dale Earnhardt’s final Autosport interview Prime

From the archive: Dale Earnhardt’s final Autosport interview

The death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500 shocked NASCAR to the core. At the Daytona 24 Hours, two weeks before his fatal accident, ‘The Intimidator’ shared his expectations of challenging for an eighth Cup title with JONATHAN INGRAM, in an article first published in the 15 February 2001 issue of Autosport magazine. Little did we know then what tragedy would unfold…

NASCAR Cup
Feb 18, 2021
The lasting NASCAR legacy after Dale Earnhardt’s death Prime

The lasting NASCAR legacy after Dale Earnhardt’s death

On February 18, 2001, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Dale Earnhardt – the fearless ‘Intimidator’ – was in his element at Daytona International Speedway. While his own DEI team’s cars ran 1-2 towards the finish line, his famed #3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Monte Carlo was playing rear gunner to block any late runs from the chasing pack. As the cars tore through Turns 3 and 4 on that fateful final lap, Earnhardt maintained the strongarm tactics that encapsulated his persona… but his actions in those moments sadly proved to be his last.

NASCAR Cup
Feb 18, 2021
Inspired by Pitbull, the “revolution” sweeping through NASCAR Prime

Inspired by Pitbull, the “revolution” sweeping through NASCAR

The NASCAR Cup Series is changing. Whether it be the gradual morphing out the seasoned drivers of yesterday as the next generation step up, a radical calendar shake-up featuring more road courses than ever before and the prospect of an all-new car on the horizon, stock car racing’s highest level is nearing the end of a huge facelift.

NASCAR Cup
Feb 16, 2021
The NASCAR storylines to watch out for in 2021 Prime

The NASCAR storylines to watch out for in 2021

This weekend's Daytona 500 kickstarts a NASCAR Cup season that promises plenty of intrigue courtesy of new owners and a refreshed calendar. Here's what you need to know ahead of the new season…

NASCAR Cup
Feb 13, 2021