The Racing Capital
of the World
November 18, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
NASCAR is a team sport in which the driver gets the accolades for the victory. But to compare what Jimmie Johnson has accomplished by winning six NASCAR Sprint Cup titles in over the past eight seasons is comparable to Michael Jordan leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles in the 1990s.
“When you mention Michael's name, he's given me a hard time that I only won five,” Johnson said of the man who now owns the Charlotte Bobcats of the NBA. “I can't wait to send him a text and say, ‘Hey, buddy, I've caught up.’
“It's not like me to think in that light. It's just not me. I guess I need to open my mind to it because the numbers speak for themselves. I find myself in a touchy situation at times where my quiet approach can be looked at as arrogant or cocky, and that is the furthest thing from the truth in what I'm trying to portray.
“Honestly, I'm just trying to, I don't know, say the right things and keep my mind in the right space. I haven't let a lot in, and it's led to more success. It's kept my work ethic intact, kept me honest and humble. I like that about myself. I really, really do. I don't know if I want to open my mind and let it in, where I stand in the sports world. It's not time for that in my eyes.”
During his four wins at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his two Daytona 500 victories and his six NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, Johnson always has handled his success with true class and dignity.
That is why he is more than deserving of being considered as perhaps the greatest champion NASCAR history.
In the 10 seasons of NASCAR’s “Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship,” the title rarely has been decided by the two best drivers for the entire 36-race season. That is why four-time Brickyard 400 winner Johnson’s sixth Sprint Cup championship is something special: He battled it out with Matt Kenseth all the way to the final race of 2013.
By claiming a “six-pack” of NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, there is little doubt Johnson has become a legend and deserving to be mentioned with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt – the only two drivers with seven Cup titles. And in an era of big-time competition, a strong case can be made that Johnson is NASCAR’s greatest driver ever.
That’s an area Johnson doesn’t want to touch until after his career is complete.
"I have six, and we will see if I get seven,” Johnson said. “Time will tell. I think we need to save the argument until I hang up the helmet; then it's worth the argument. If people want to argue and fight about it right now, then they can. But let's wait until I hang up the helmet before we start thinking about this."
That’s a debate for team owner Rick Hendrick – for now. With his 11th Cup title as a team owner, Hendrick broke a tie with Petty Enterprises.
But Richard Petty believes by the time Johnson’s career is complete, he will win eight or 10 Cup championships.
“I don't think Jimmie can train any harder and work any harder as an athlete to be in shape, or study what the car does, what the car needs,” Hendrick said. “And (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) is the same way. I don't know how they can work any harder. They don't leave any detail undone.
“This week we've been talking about how we could be better next year as an organization. I just think it's the drive that they have. I think when you look at Jimmie Johnson, I like to use the Bill Parcells quote, 'You are what your record says you are.' To hear Richard Petty say what he said, Denny Hamlin, the competitors, it's taken a while for people to want to acknowledge it, but they all know how hard it is to do this.
“To come out and do it year after year, have the record he's had, the combination that he and Chad have had. I've been doing this for 30 years now. The attention to detail that Chad goes through preparing for a race elevates the whole company. Jimmie elevates all the talent in our organization.”
As for Kenseth, he climbed out of his race car with a smile knowing that he gave it his very best effort. But he couldn’t help but reflect on how the Chase slipped away with just one bad race at Phoenix.
“Obviously it's been a great year; the best year I've ever had,” Kenseth said. “Jimmie and that team are obviously unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like this in the sport and probably will never see anything like it again. It's amazing with as tight as the rules are, multi-car teams, information sharing and all that stuff.
“It's amazing they can figure out how to do that year after year.”
Johnson is the only driver to win five-straight Cup titles, from 2006-10. Stewart ended Johnson’s title streak by winning in 2011. Brad Keselowski won the championship last year.
It’s hard to say that Johnson was in a “championship slump” by not winning in 2011 or 2012. If anything, he used that as motivation to get back to the top.
“We were in position to win a lot throughout the course of the year,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, we gave a bunch away. I think we could be sitting here with a higher win total. At the end of the day, we won the big prize.
“It was just a well-executed year top to bottom, especially in these final 10 races. We didn't leave many points on the table. I can look back on a few tracks and think we could have had a few more points, but it really was a strong 10 weeks. Last year we had eight great weeks, didn't come up with it. Matt had nine. You have to have 10 great weeks to be the champion, and we got it done this year.”
And if there is any doubt, Johnson is definitely one of the greatest NASCAR drivers ever and may end his career with the most championships in NASCAR history.
“I forward to the opportunity, hope that I can certainly accomplish more,” Johnson said. “I feel like this team is capable of a lot of great things. There are still great years out ahead of us. But all of that is in the future, a seventh, an eighth. Richard said eight to 10. That's all ahead of us.
“I don't want to focus on that yet. It's not time. I want to unplug, enjoy the sixth.”
In many ways, Kenseth’s 2003 championship season – during which he lulled the competition into a slumber and scored the title with one race to go and with just one victory – that led NASCAR to adopt “The Chase” in 2004. So NASCAR instituted a concept in which the top 10 drivers in the first 26 races of the season would enter a playoff-type format and battle it out over the final 10 races to determine the champion.
In the first year of the Chase, Johnson was the best driver in the first 26 races but faltered at the end to finish second to Kurt Busch. In 2005, Johnson was once again the driver who led the points for most of the regular season, but Stewart that became the first driver to win the Cup under the old points system in 2002 and the Chase format in 2005.
Two years of the Chase and two disappointments for Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet crew at Hendrick Motorsports.
Then Johnson and crew chief Knaus figured out what it took to succeed over the final 10-race Chase with the first of a record five straight Cup championships beginning in 2006. During that time, NASCAR tinkered with the format, increasing the field to the top 12 drivers in the standings after race No. 26 and finally cutting it off after the top 10 in points but adding two Wild Card entries to the two winningest drivers between positions 11-20.
This year NASCAR added a 13th driver to the Chase when it was determined that manipulation by Michael Waltrip Racing, Penske Racing and Front Row Racing in the “regular-season finale” in early September at Richmond may have cost Jeff Gordon a spot in the Chase. So NASCAR added four-time Cup champion Gordon to the Chase in an unprecedented move.
But there was no denying that over the first 26 races of the season the two best drivers were Johnson and Kenseth. Johnson had built a points lead so great by midseason he could have sat out two races and still been the points leader. In fact, when his wife, Chandra, was about to give birth to the couple’s second child, Johnson even considered skipping a race to be in the delivery room.
Johnson started the season by winning the Daytona 500 and never looked back. But while Johnson built a huge lead in the points, a four-race slump by Johnson had Carl Edwards as the points leader under the traditional points after the Richmond race in September. But that didn’t matter because once the Chase field was reseeded with bonus points, Kenseth began the Chase No. 1 followed by Johnson, just three points back.
Kenseth was the season’s winningest driver entering the Chase. And when he began the Chase with victories in the first two races at Chicagoland Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway, it looked like Kenseth would join Stewart as the only drivers to win under the old and new points format.
Kenseth was solid, but he couldn’t shake Johnson. When Johnson won at Dover at the end of September, he was just eight points behind Kenseth, only three points out after Kansas, four back after Charlotte on Oct. 12 before taking the lead after Talladega when Johnson finished 13th and Kenseth 20th.
The two drivers were tied after Martinsville, with Kenseth getting the advantage with more victories.
When Johnson won at Texas after dominating the race, Kenseth was only seven points back. But in this Chase, it only took one bad race to falter. That happened at Phoenix when Kenseth’s Toyota was never on the mark and finished 23rd while Johnson was third.
That left Kenseth 28 points behind heading to the season’s final race at Homestead-Miami. The only thing that was going to keep Johnson from becoming the third driver in NASCAR history with six or more championships was a disastrous race. A restart in the final portion of the race when Johnson’s car ran into the back of Kenseth’s and got up in the marbles was the only moment of doubt in Johnson’s championship charge Sunday.
Kenseth finished second in the race to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, who scored his first victory of the season. Johnson finished ninth – more than enough to give him the championship by 19 points.
Kenseth finished the season as the winningest driver with seven victories while Johnson had six.
It truly was the two best drivers for the entire season – not just the two drivers that were hottest over the final 10-race Chase as has been the case in previous seasons – and that is what made this year’s Chase a memorable one.
“All the championship opportunities I've had, this truly was the most calm and normal weekend that I've ever had in the race car,” Johnson said. “A few things go toward that. Experience. I think maturity, being prepared as a team, the steps that we went through to be prepared. Testing at the tracks in Texas and here late in the year helped with that, as well. The vibe we had going, the energy. We had a lot of things going in the right direction.
“It allowed me to enter this entire weekend as stress-free as ever. It felt like a normal race. It really, really did.
“With 74 to go, everything hit the fan out there on the frontstretch, it got serious (when he hit the back of Kenseth’s car on a restart). I'm not going to lie. Up until then, it was the most calm and relaxed environment I've ever had down here.”