HOMESTEAD, Fla. – For the rest of his career, Jimmie Johnson won’t be racing Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick or anyone else currently driving in NASCAR. No, from here on out, he’ll be racing against legends named Petty and Earnhardt. He’s beaten everyone else in the history of the sport.
On Sunday evening, just minutes after a brilliant Florida sunset, Johnson locked up his sixth Sprint Cup championship. He now stands just one behind Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most in NASCAR history. Judging from how well Johnson ran on Sunday, it’s no longer a matter of if he’ll catch them. It’s simply a question of when.
1:00 p.m. Sunday
Two hours, 15 minutes to green flag
Johnson entered the weekend of the season’s 36th race with that rarest of luxuries: an enormous lead. With a 28-point cushion between himself and his closest challenger, Matt Kenseth, Johnson had every reason to relax. The only way that Kenseth could catch realistically Johnson would be through calamity.
In the minutes before the pre-race driver’s meeting, Johnson, wearing a black Lowe’s golf shirt and jeans, walked alone through the media center. He was the first driver to arrive for the meeting, which is appropriate because he’s usually the first driver to arrive anywhere. He’s up at 5:30 almost every morning working out. He schedules his media sessions as early as possible. You don’t need the dots connected any more clearly than that, do you?
In the driver’s meeting, Johnson sat with team owner Rick Hendrick on his left and crew chief Chad Knaus on his right. He laughed with Clint Bowyer, sitting behind him in a camo baseball cap, and applauded politely for the endless introductions of corporate VPs and B-list celebrities.
Johnson knows how the game is played. And the fact that he plays by the rules (and Knaus usually does so as well), and still wins going away, drives fans insane.
When Tiger Woods was winning four majors in a row and eight of 12 from 1999 to 2001, no one claimed he wasn’t an athlete. When the Bulls won six championships in the 1990s, no one said Michael Jordan was just one of five teammates. Yet to this day, casual observers and the willfully ignorant continue to try to demean Johnson’s achievements.
The latest was former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, transitioning into a new career as professional troll by claiming on Friday that Johnson isn’t an athlete. ''He sits in a car and he drives, that doesn't take being athletic,'' McNabb said. “What athletically is he doing?''
The are-drivers-athletes? question is a tired and, frankly, irrelevant one. Johnson competes against the best in his field and thoroughly dominates them. (It should go without saying that Johnson has won more championships in the last 24 hours than McNabb won in his entire 12-year career.)
More ridiculous are the arguments, usually put forward by jealous or stuck-in-the-past fans, that Johnson is merely a cog in a Hendrick machine, a fortunate beneficiary of circumstance. If it was that easy to win six championships, everyone would be doing it.
37 minutes to green flag
Backstage in the moments before drivers are introduced to the crowd is a fascinating place. Fans may stake out us-or-them territory when picking a driver, but the drivers themselves are cordial, even friendly with their co-workers.
On this day, several drivers brought their young children, and some of the childless among the NASCAR set – Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne – made faces at the little kids in the arms of their rivals. Clearly, we’re a long way from the blood, sand and speed days of NASCAR’s early days.
Tucked deep beneath the shade, out of the searing Florida sunshine, sat Kenseth and Johnson. Their daughters are friends, so why can’t the daddies be as well?
Moments later, Johnson, in his Lowe’s blue firesuit, escorts Evie, who’s wearing a candy-apple red dress, onto the NASCAR catwalk. She’s three years old, and she’s already got the wave-to-the-crowd move down.
There’s no way around this: Johnson projects a boring, businesslike persona. He’s a dad, with all the requisite precious dullness that accompanies fatherhood. He keeps his wit under wraps, going for safe jabs rather than haymakers.
In response to McNabb’s shots at his lack of athleticism, Johnson could have opened fire, noting that McNabb was more eloquent when he was throwing up during the one time he reached a Super Bowl. But instead, Johnson went with a response that would bore white bread:
The debate continues... Everyone is entitled to an opinion. #DriversAreAthletes
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) November 16, 2013
Look, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this kind of lukewarm persona. Plenty of Hall of Fame-caliber players come across with all the liveliness of a ream of copy paper. Greg Maddux, Tim Duncan, Calvin Johnson … dull types, all.
The problem, for Johnson, is that he’s now in the company of two of the most charismatic, remarkable personalities in sports, and in the public-image battle, he’ll never pass Petty or Earnhardt even if he wins ten championships.
Look closer, though. Petty triumphed through a combination of superior engineering and ineffable cool. Earnhardt bludgeoned his opponents with brute force and attitude. Johnson is quietly relentless, never letting the leader of any race get too comfortable. In nine Chase races, he only finished worse than 6th once: at Talladega, where he finished 13th.
When other drivers look under their beds at night, they’re checking for Jimmie Johnson.
Nine minutes to green flag
Johnson started the race in seventh, one behind Harvick and six behind pole-sitter Kenseth. In the moments before the green flag, Johnson had absolutely no room for contemplation. While Dierks Bentley was chatting with Harvick and his wife Delana nearby, Johnson talked and laughed with Knaus and an endless line of well-wishers. He put Evie in the driver’s seat for a minute, leaning into the car for what served as at least a momentary break from the crush of humanity and cameras.
Then it was time for the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem, and the flyover, and then there was nothing left to do but drive the car.
3:15 p.m. Sunday
Matt Kenseth drove a near-flawless race on Sunday, leading all but 10 of the race’s first 145 laps and remaining in the hunt for the rest of the evening. It wasn’t nearly enough. Johnson never led the race, but he never let Kenseth get too far in front of him either. Kenseth never got any closer than 14 points to Johnson.
Even the one moment that could have been disaster ended up being drama-free. A slow restart by Jeff Gordon on lap 193 resulted in a collapsing accordion of cars in front of Johnson, who sustained minor left-front-fender damage. But one quick fender-bend later, and Johnson drove the rest of the race with routine top-10 excellence. Seventy laps later, although it was never really in doubt, the sixth championship was his at last.
"Yes yes yes!" Johnson exulted as he crossed the line, the champion by 19 points over Kenseth. "You guys are the best. This is the best race team."
After three years of trying, Johnson has achieved his “six-pack.” Now it’s time to look for the biggest number in the sport.
This is how Johnson compares to the greats. Petty won his first six championships over the course of twelve seasons. Earnhardt needed 14 years from the first to the sixth. Johnson did it in eight.
Looking forward from there: Petty won his final championship four years after his sixth, at the age of 42, and would race another 14 seasons. Earnhardt won his seventh the year after his sixth, at age 43, and would race another six years. Johnson is now 38.
In other words, the numbers, as with everything else in this sport, bend in Johnson’s favor. It's just a matter of time.