DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jimmie Johnson's record streak of five consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championships ended last fall. His next milestone is obvious, chasing down Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr., who share the all-time mark of seven career titles.
"I want to win eight. I want to win nine," Johnson said Friday as he prepped for the season-opening Daytona 500. "Have I spent a lot of time looking at that mark and setting that goal? No. I've never been one that chases big stats. I've always been more in the present. That's just my mindset."
No one in NASCAR knows better than Johnson that small victories produce grand victories. Bold talk isn't always his nature.
History looms, though, and Johnson isn't oblivious.
He's still just 36 years old, in the prime of his career and with five championships is the only active driver with a realistic shot at the all-time mark that hasn't been challenged since Earnhardt tied Petty in 1994.
"Of course I want to win six championships," he said. "And then seven and eight and nine. I never want to stop. That's a given.
"I'm far from retiring I can tell you that. So if I'm out on the track and away from my family and I'm committed to this team and my sponsor, I'm going to give 100 percent. I'm here to win races and win the championship."
The dawn of a new season finds Johnson more focused and forward thinking than ever. Leave it to the guy that always wins to find his inevitable loss so distasteful. He said finally being eliminated from title contention last fall resulted in a half-decade weight being lifted off his shoulders, but the pressure was replaced by regret.
He spent night after night this offseason in bed, staring at the ceiling, brooding over various failures that he claims resulted in the 48 "beating ourselves."
"I'd fall asleep thinking, 'Man, we made some mistakes,' " he revealed. "I'd rather know we just got beat."
How often would it keep you up?
Like two-third of the nights?
"There was some drinking, so maybe half," he said before laughing. He shrugged his shoulders. "Work hard, play harder."
OK, so the winter of defeat wasn't completely depressing.
No one should take Johnson's trademark happy-go-lucky style the wrong way. He was sitting relaxed Friday afternoon at a picnic table outside his motorcoach here at Daytona International Speedway. Nearby was a pink, motorized toy car that his 19-month old daughter would soon play with. He's always been able to flip the switch between family and ferocity. His ability to string those five titles together was a testament to his relentless pursuit of perfection. It demands mental toughness, incredible focus and precise cohesiveness throughout the team.
"It's such a fragile environment," he explained.
If anything, the loss has left Johnson more determined. While most would think his Chase for the Cup essentially ended with a crash into the wall in Charlotte, Johnson points to four or five bad races that really did him in. Then there were regular-season failures. A slow start at Daytona, bad restarts at Dover, he could go on and on.
All alone, he will.
"I know that I will be constantly reminded about the mistakes of last season," he said. "It'll just surface in my mind."
Then there is the overarching issue. He doesn't believe the team pushed itself or "evolved" enough.
On Friday, in a pre-practice tech inspection, NASCAR found a body modification on the 48 that was "outside of what our tolerances are." Penalties may be forthcoming. It's not a huge deal for a team, led by crew chief Chad Knaus, that's no stranger to controversy.
Johnson didn't know much about the "C" post issue but said it wouldn't impact his chances here. Besides, he said, "everybody is looking for speed."
Maybe this is a sign of the "pushing" they lacked last year?
"There it is," he joked. "We're off to a quick start."
Johnson last fell short of winning a title in 2005, ending up fourth. The year before he'd finished second. At the time, he had no titles and plenty of doubt.
"All winter long we said, 'We don't know how many opportunities we're going to get and we just wasted another one,' " Johnson recalled. "For some reason now I don't have that. I have the optimism that I do have more chances to win championships."
So here comes Johnson, the old streak done, the new goal staring right at him. Six. Seven. History. Forever.
"Love to. Love to. Love to," he said.
He looked serious.
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