HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — The congratulatory messages started rolling in long before Jimmie Johnson had finished his obligatory championship photos. Larry Bird. Mia Hamm. Michael Phelps. Mario Andretti. Drew Brees. The Chicago Cubs.
The list of dignitaries — and the friends and neighbors who toilet-papered his North Carolina home overnight — shows just how significant this latest milestone is for Johnson.
Greatest of all time? Maybe. He certainly deserves to be in the conversation.
Johnson joined Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers in NASCAR to win seven titles with a race-winning run Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His record-tying championship came in a bizarre year for Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team, and on a day that did not belong to the iconic No. 48 Chevrolet until the final lap of the race.
Hendrick Motorsports was not good this year, and never found the speed to match Joe Gibbs Racing and its fleet of Toyotas. Johnson, for most of the season, was never even mentioned as a title contender.
The organization buckled down, improved its cars and got Johnson in position to race for his seventh title.
Then he did the rest.
When Carl Edwards wrecked Sunday night to essentially lose the championship, Johnson charged through the melee and found himself suddenly leading the two remaining title contenders. On a night when he’d started last — his team was found to have manipulated the body of his car after it had passed inspection — and clearly wasn’t as good as the other three contenders, he had somehow lucked into the lead.
He still had to earn the win, though, and did it with the restart of his life to hold off Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. He led one lap and it was the one that mattered.
“He is probably the most underrated champion in this sport,” said his crew chief, Chad Knaus. “He is a fantastic, fantastic individual, an amazing race car driver. Most people in the situation we were in just in would crumble. He didn’t even waver. He knew what he needed to do. He knew what the demands were on him at that point in time, and he made it happen.
“We’ve got a great team. We’ve got a great owner. We’ve got a great everything at Hendrick Motorsports. But the fact of the matter is the real spark in this whole thing is Jimmie.”
A fatigue perhaps set in when Johnson reeled off five consecutive titles. Fans didn’t seem to appreciate his dominance, certainly not the way they revered Petty or Earnhardt.
Almost each Johnson championship was met with a collective yawn, when they should have been celebrated for their unique achievement.
Johnson, at 41, is the youngest driver to win seven. Petty was 42 when he did it in 1979, while Earnhardt was 43 in 1994. He also collected his seven titles in a 10-year span. Earnhardt needed 14 years to do it, while Petty did it in 15 seasons.
Johnson’s 80 career victories rank seventh all time, one spot ahead of Earnhardt.
“I think the five in a row was pretty phenomenal, and I think winning seven and tying seven is pretty special,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “It’s special to see him tie those guys. I think it’s good for the sport, and I think it draws a lot of attention to our sport. We had Gatorade, had a lot of guys like Peyton Manning telling him how neat it was, and Serena Williams. I think it’s going to be a big shot in the arm for not only Jimmie but our sport.”
Johnson will likely add to his totals. With retirement still a ways off, he has a chance to win eight titles, and as he drank a beer and ate a slice of cold pizza in a champagne-soaked firesuit, he was already being asked about the possibility of eight.
“I don’t know what the chances are, but let’s go,” he said. “I’m so excited to put that in front of myself and the team has a hurdle to get over and an accomplishment to achieve. I had a lot of fun racing for the sixth. This one and the calm nature and the way we went about business and got it done only gives me more confidence for the future.
“I honestly feel like I’m playing with house money. I never aspired to be famous. I never aspired to be a champion. I just wanted to race. I think it makes us really dangerous, and I look forward to the challenge of trying to get number eight.”
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