Jimmie Johnson shows no signs of slowing down
November 16, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- He wrecked, and that was all there was to it.
Lost it out of Turn 4 and backed it into the wall, not quite 200 laps into the race, and after running as high as fifth.
It wasn't the debut he had envisioned, but the deal was done. Jimmie Johnson, the kid from El Cajon, Calif., with the off-road racing background, had officially arrived.
Earlier that same day, the United States had launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, a military action in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Earlier in the week, Blaise Alexander, a close friend of Johnson's, had died from injuries sustained in a crash during the ARCA race.
Johnson's debut in Cup competition came 434 Cup races ago in 2001 and it took place at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The world was changing. The sport was changing.
Three races later, the newest addition to the Hendrick Motorsports stable won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole, a rookie qualifying No. 1 for the 2002 season-opening Daytona 500.
Nine races after that he earned his first win, at Auto Club Speedway.
A year later he was contending for the title -- finishing second to Matt Kenseth -- and by 2006 he was winning the championship.
And Johnson hasn't slowed down since.
For the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET, ESPN), amid the palms and pageantry, Johnson, 38, finds himself on the verge of a sixth Sprint Cup title. With a 28-point lead on Kenseth and 34 ahead of Kevin Harvick, Johnson's chances are favorable to say the least.
If successful, he'll be one step closer to the seven championships won by only two other drivers in the history of NASCAR -- Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
But matching and possibly passing the marks of two of the sports legendary figures isn't what drives Johnson.
Nor were the other milestones he, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 team have already achieved -- becoming only the second driver and team to win three consecutive titles, then the only to win four and then five in a row.
"They're more on the surface level," Johnson said of the records and the chatter each new record generated, but said they have never been the focus.
Each one has been one of those "Man it would be great if ..." moments he said.
"So it's there (but) it's not what motivates me. I don't have a win number, a championship number in my mind that I'm not going to feel accomplished unless I get to this.
"Every athlete has a different approach and different things that motivate them. That's just not been it for me."
That outlook, he said, can be traced back to his youth, first as a motocross racer and then later in off-road competition.
"I didn't win a lot of championships, and that's not why I competed," he said. "I competed because I loved the sport and it was part of me and who I am. I learned and ... I was just built that way. It started at a young age and it's carried through to today."
At 38, and with 66 Cup victories, Johnson's career doesn't seem to have reached its peak. More wins and more titles are attainable. Working alongside Knaus, he has already put up Hall of Fame worthy numbers in little more than a dozen years of competition. His worst points finish, a sixth-place effort, came in 2011.
Petty was 38 when he won his sixth title, and 42 when No. 7 came his way. His 200 career wins are the most of any driver in the history of the series, and likely will not be matched.
Earnhardt, who won 76 times during his career, snagged his sixth championship at the age of 42, and his seventh a year later.
Should he win a sixth title on Sunday, Johnson knows the talk of a seventh is inevitable. Such talk began bubbling to the surface at the end of 2010, when he wrapped up his fifth championship.
"I think some have started the conversation and it's out there," he said. "Of course I'm proud to be a part of the conversation, but in the end it's not my place to say or Chad's or any member of this team," he said. "It's for the fans, it's for the peers within this sport to have that opinion."
Those peers are quick to laud him for his accomplishments. Team owner Richard Childress, who fielded cars for six of Earnhardt's seven titles, said he and his driver didn't discuss matching Petty's accomplishment and he would be surprised if Johnson has given the record book much thought.
"He's got the youth," Childress said. "He takes care of himself physically and mentally. I don't think he's focusing on seven, to beat that, or eight, to beat that. He's wanting to win a lot of championships in his career."
Johnson's team owner, Rick Hendrick, described the chemistry between Johnson and Knaus as "unbelievable," and said his driver's preparation is as intense and focused as the preparation that goes into the team's cars.
"I don't think Jimmie's gotten the real credit he deserves for the talent that he has and for the dedication that he has given to the sport," Hendrick said. "He's a guy that works out, eats (healthy) and is a student of looking at track data, tire data. He lives and breathes being a perfectionist. Chad is the same way.
"This is a tough sport. But I think every now and then you get a combination of people that really click. If you give them the tools, and they don't leave anything on the table, then they're going to be there every year.
"I think Jimmie's as good as I've ever seen."
The argument is as old as the sport itself. Who was the greatest? How would yesterday's stars compare today? How would today's fare in past decades?
Johnson says it's difficult, impossible even, to "sort it out."
"But if you're in that conversation, which our name has been some, I'm very proud of that and excited to be there," he said.
"But again, it's just not my place. When I hang the helmet up, we'll see what the opinion is then. Regardless of where it's at, I've had a lot to be proud of over my career. I hope to build more on it for sure, but we'll see where it falls."