Johnson's trophy case still not full

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! SportsMay 23, 2009

CONCORD, N.C. – Jimmie Johnson has an office at the Hendrick Motorsports complex here. He doesn't need it. He rarely uses it.

"My car is my office," he says.

Regardless, he has one and, if nothing else it, the hallway that leads to it is useful for displaying trophies from some of his 41 career victories during his Sprint Cup career. They come in all shapes and sizes, many garish, oversized monuments that no one would dare allow to ugly up a home – consider the one they hand out for conquering Delaware's "Monster Mile," a two-foot tall monster that is the antithesis of the Stanley Cup.

He does have three beauties though, perfectly spaced and prominently displayed. Each one is for a Sprint Cup championship – 2006, 2007 and 2008.

"I'm willing to fit another in there," he says, laughing.

As we come out of the all-star "break" and head into Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson sits fourth in the points standings. It's a "good position," he says, for a charge at an unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup championship.

It's history in the making, dominance in the driving, and yet perhaps for many of the same reasons winning three in a row didn't overwhelm the sport the way you'd think, the focus of the season hasn't yet fallen on Johnson's quest for four.

Whether it's lingering aversion to the Chase format, the never-ending focus on what's wrong with Dale Earnhardt Jr. or the (inaccurate) perception by fans that Johnson lacks personality, there isn't a lot of buzz about it. Of course, it's still early.

Johnson's goal is to get well positioned heading into the Chase, preferably first place, and then tighten the 48 car's ship and avoid mistakes.

"The first part of the season we've had too many little errors – missing the pit, things like that," Johnson said. "You can't have any of that during the Chase."

In 11 races he's had a win and five top fives. The most recent came in Darlington two weeks ago, an effort that makes him particularly proud. A spin out in qualifying left him in a back-up car starting in 42nd place, a variety of calamities throughout the race should've left him out of contention, but in the end he pushed Mark Martin and finished in second.

"You want other guys to see you struggle all day and then at the end go, 'How did the 48 wind up there?' " Johnson said. Johnson isn't a naturally intimidating guy or driver. He'll never be compared to Dale Earnhardt and would laugh at the comparison.

He may not scare people in a traditional manner, but at some point there has to be a level of intimidation in his capabilities. The other drivers have to know he's coming and coming hard, and no lead is safe at the end.

This isn't a guy you can just get rid of in the Chase for the Cup. A year ago, he got off to a slow start to the season, in part because of adjustments to the new Car of Tomorrow, but wound up all but locking up the Cup with a race still to go.

He theorizes that if he can get ahead in the standings, it might make other drivers press to catch him because he's famous for not fading down the stretch. And anything that changes the way an opponent does things is a positive.

It's why he was eyeing the top of standings – currently held by Jeff Gordon – heading into Talladega in late April. He was on a run of four consecutive top-five finishes. Then he wrecked in Alabama and fell back again.

"At Talladega time, we were closing in on Jeff pretty good," Johnson said. "And what it does for the team from a mental standpoint, there are a lot of advantages. It does a lot for confidence, everyone wants to win."

He isn't worried, though. He enjoys the spring part of the season because so many races are in the Southeast allowing him to settle into his home outside of Charlotte. When the races move to the North in the summer, he and his wife Chandra will move to their apartment in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood.

At this point, though, the California native is a Southerner. He takes long rides on his Harley Road Cruiser or his Orange County Chopper. He goes to his garage, where he's in the process of purchasing each of his old race cars, dating all the way back to his childhood and desert racing days out west.

Sometimes he and Chandra head over to Mac's on South Boulevard for barbeque, even though he prefers Texas brisket to Carolina pork. Mostly he enjoys a pretty strong life.

"I'm actually enjoying my house, friends I haven't seen in a long time, family, the shop," he said. "It's so much more relaxing because you're at home."

The heavy lifting of the season is still to come, the time for his team and him to buckle down and minimize the mistakes, to win races. He knows there is a reason that no driver has ever won four titles in a row; he knows no one is going to just let him have it.

Who's the top challenger to end his run?

"I think the 2 car is going to be there in the end," he said of Kurt Busch.

Left unsaid is that Johnson thinks he will be there, too. There is, after all, room for another trophy in front of his office.