Quiet achiever Johnson makes history his own way

By Andrew Both (Reuters) - Jimmie Johnson joined elite company when he won the NASCAR Sprint Cup final on Sunday, becoming the third man to clinch seven series championships in the pinnacle of American stock car racing. Johnson dominated NASCAR from 2006 until 2010 with a record five consecutive championships in the season-long points competition. He added a sixth title in 2013 and three years later at Homestead-Miami Speedway finally joined the legendary Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt as seven-time winners of the Cup. It has been a journey almost four decades in the making for California-born Johnson, 41, who began riding a motor bike before reaching school age and showed talent at most physical pursuits he engaged in. But motor sports was his passion and he methodically worked his way through various forms of racing, starting on the dirt track circuit, before eventually making his debut in the top level of NASCAR in 2001. Perhaps due to West Coast roots, far from the spiritual home of NASCAR in the American south, Johnson has never received the widespread adulation accorded Petty and Earnhardt. Petty was a true superstar of NASCAR, a cigar-smoking, tobacco-chewing North Carolinian good ol' boy nicknamed "The King" who won a record 200 races in a career spanning more than three decades. Earnhardt, also North Carolina-born, won his titles between 1980 and 1994. He was killed at the age of 49 in a crash at Daytona in 2001. Johnson, meanwhile, is an avid triathlete who has quietly earned the respect of his fellow drivers in his Hendrick Motorsports No. 48, using his computer-like brain to get the most out of every race. “He deserves to be ranked among the best drivers there has ever been in this sport,” said fellow champion Jeff Gordon. Added Johnson's owner, Rick Hendrick: “Jimmie is everything but vanilla. "He may come across at the track that way because he’s so focused and driven, and he thinks like a computer when he’s in the car if you listen to him give feedback or break it down, or in a debrief," said Hendrick, according to the Charlotte Observer. "The way he eats, the way he exercises, everything is about physical and mental fitness for the race car.” Johnson's victory on Sunday was his 80th in 543 races, and no doubt his most coveted. (Writing by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Larry Fine)