DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The quest for seven officially kicked off Thursday, when Speedweeks opened and drivers found themselves running the gauntlet of reporters and broadcasters assembled for NASCAR's biggest race. With six championships already to his name, Jimmie Johnson arrived at Daytona International Speedway on the cusp of history -- not that he'd thought about it much to that point.
"It's been out of mind, for sure. That could be due to the addition to the household," said Johnson, who along with wife Chandra welcomed their second daughter late last year. "It's very busy at home. So many parents with more than one kid told me how much busier it was going to be, and I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah yeah.' It's far busier than having one."
Within days, though, the Hendrick Motorsports standard-bearer will see that focus shift to the race track, and the pursuit of a seventh Sprint Cup Series title that would tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most all-time on the sport's premier circuit. That mission comes amid a season of sweeping change, in which so many things -- from qualification for the championship, to the qualifying format, to the penalty and appeals process, to continued tweaks to the race car -- are different than they were only a few months before.
And yet, history would indicate that no team adapts better than Johnson's No. 48 program, which has won six titles in an eight-year span and maintained an unparalleled level of performance for more than a decade. "There's an opportunity there, and one we typically find and exploit," he said. That prospect certainly looms again this season, as Johnson tries to knot perhaps his sport's most hallowed record amid a campaign, which will place a premium on flexibility.
"The world we've created at team 48 is perfect for that, and it helps us hold things down," Johnson said at Media Day. "Because we've got such a strong nucleus of people, and as things change -- and there's a lot of change this year, when you look at qualifying procedure, the way the champion is crowned, rules package, officiating, they're parking the transporters different. Every time I hear something, something's changed, and it's going to be nice to have a familiar foundation to work from."
Certainly, it would seem difficult to bet against him. Regardless of how many championships Johnson ultimately owns, though, his legacy is already ironclad -- particularly among those competitors raised in an era dominated by the No. 48 car's success. "I idolize him so much," said 18-year-old Dylan Kwasniewski, preparing for his rookie season in the Nationwide Series. When he eventually steps out of the car, Johnson will leave behind not just a run of titles and race victories, but also a corps of younger drivers who view him as a model of what they hope to become.
Call it Generation Jimmie.
"I think what Jimmie Johnson does deserves that, on the track and off the track," said 22-year-old Trevor Bayne. "That guy pushes his body, pushes his limits, and the teamwork he has with (crew chief) Chad Knaus and the whole Hendrick group -- that's what you want with your crew chief. You want that work ethic off the race track when you're out running 10 miles a day. You want who he is in the media, how he carries himself. ? And then, he wins at the end of the day. The reason so many guys might want to be like Jimmie Johnson is, he wins at the end of the day and gets it done. That's something we all want to do, and he's the guy we all grew up watching do it."
Johnson commands complete respect within the garage area at large, as evidenced by the willingness of so many of his contemporaries to label him the greatest driver of all time. For drivers just breaking through, who were impressionable youths during Johnson's unprecedented run of five consecutive championships, the admiration can border on awe. Richard Childress has said that his grandsons Austin and Ty Dillon -- the former a rookie in Sprint Cup, the latter in the Nationwide Series -- hold up the six-time champion as a model of what they aspire to be.
"For us, that's what we grew up with. We grew up watching Jimmie Johnson win championships, and the way that he's done it -- not only young people, but a lot of people should look up to the way he is," said Ty Dillon, 21. "He's a great person, he's led this deal with class and elegance, and really been the best driver year in and year out. You'd be really ridiculous to not look up to that guy as a driver, unless you think you're better than him, or you think you can do better. If you strive to be like that, you're not doing wrong, for sure. The younger class is a great group of people why really respect our sport, and I think from that is why you have so many people who respect Jimmie Johnson so much."
Accessibility certainly helps. Bayne can remember jogging around Talladega Superspeedway, and the always fitness-conscious Johnson slowing up on his own run to chat with the Wood Brothers Racing driver. For Kwasniewski, a former champion in both the K&N Pro Series East and West circuits who will drive for Turner Scott Motorsports this season, the time taken by Johnson to answer questions leaves an unmistakable impression.
"He's just the man. He obviously proves it on the track, but he's just a well-rounded dude," Kwasniewski said. "Everything he does, with his racing, the way he handles the media and the fans, he's just an awesome dude. He's a really nice guy, too. Out of everybody I've talked to, he takes the time to sit there, even if he's got something to go do. He stopped and talked to me for a little bit even though his PR people were trying to get him rushed out. He's just an awesome guy. He really likes helping out young drivers trying to make it in the sport. He's not shy to anything that he knows, and he's just trying to help these young guys get up through the sport and make a name for themselves."
Johnson's name has been built on season-to-season excellence that defies the flux taking place around him, a quality that may face a stern test in 2014 given all the changes within NASCAR and the history-making prospects facing the six-time champion and reigning Daytona 500 titlist. "It's so tough to do. I'm not taking it lightly or for granted," he said. "We see six coming, and then we're worried about seven, and now we're here. So hopefully we'll have another opportunity at it."
And the prospect of winning another title under a revamped Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format is certainly a challenge Johnson relishes. "We'll be a threat," he said. "It would be nice to win one -- it would be nice to win two -- in whatever new format." To the younger drivers who now emulate him, though, no further validation is necessary.
"He's the guy who's won six championships in our era, which is tough," said Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 champion. "Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. did that, but it was a different era. Now, it's so close and so competitive and so tough. Not saying it wasn't competitive back then, but it's so different now, and if you have a guy who can show dominance year after year ? there's some kind of edge there you look for."