A noticeably more hirsute Jimmie Johnson digests a question during the Daytona 500 Media Day. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS)
Photo: Jeff Siner
Photo: Jeff Siner

Johnson brings quiet greatness to Atlanta

Jimmie Johnson always has been measured against his own kind. By those metrics, he stands helmet-to-helmet with legends.

Winning his seventh NASCAR series championship last year, Johnson tied a couple of lead-foots named Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most in history.

But seven championships spread across the wider spectrum of sport stand up pretty well, too. That’s two more than Tom Brady has Super Bowls. Three more than Wayne Gretzky has Stanley Cups. Identical to the number of World Series won with the aid of Babe Ruth.

Johnson has many more to go, though, before catching Bill Russell and his 11 NBA championships; fewer before matching Tiger Woods’ haul of nine Vardon Trophies (low seasonal scoring average).

The point to all this being that the defending Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 winner who returns to Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend has had the kind of run that compares favorably with just about any all-time accomplishment — both gas- and muscle-powered.

And who’s to say he is finished adding to his collection?

“I think Jimmie’s in the prime of his career,” said Rick Hendrick, the car owner who has partnered so successfully with Johnson.

“He’s gonna win eight,” said Larry McReynolds, a former championship crew chief and now a Fox racing analyst told the Orlando Sentinel. “And if they can win eight — I will never say the word ‘never’ because the word is too powerful — but when I look at the career span of drivers today getting shorter and competition where it’s at, I don’t know if eight will ever be accomplished again.”

Coming to a race track near you is a singular champion who at 41 is one step away from establishing a new pinnacle in his sport. His championships have spanned just about any format NASCAR can pull out of its tailpipe — and as he confronts yet another permutation this season, there is no reason to believe Johnson can’t handle the calculations and the competition.

Last year, his victory at Atlanta — five of his 80 career wins have come at the Hampton speedway — was a launch pad for a seventh championship. And just as he regrouped from a disappointing Daytona 500 in 2016 (he finished 16th), Johnson will attempt to heal again Sunday. He and his back-up car were victims of Daytona Wreck-Fest ’17, exiting with 180 miles to go, Johnson finishing 34th in the 40-car field.

Johnson reached his seven championships at a slightly younger age than the other two in the discussion. Petty won his last at 42, then never finished higher than fourth in the next 13 seasons. Earnhardt was 43 at the time of his seventh, and did race to a couple of runner-up championship finishes in the following six seasons (he died in 2001).

Johnson seems particularly well-equipped to break through any age barriers, artificial or actual.

Sporting a full mountain-survivalist beard — Johnson is spending an increasing amount of free time in Colorado — he seems in fine physical fettle. He runs and cycles like he’s a triathlete rather than a try-athlete. He hasn’t had to let out his fire suit a bit.

Johnson’s attitude is even healthier. Having decided to treat the seventh championship like the release valve to a pressure cooker, he frequently talks about playing with house money now. In his mind, the hard part was matching Petty and Earnhardt. Passing them just would be the crème brulee after a gourmet main course.

“He’s as cool about it as I’ve ever seen him,” Hendrick said. “I don’t think there’s any pressure on him. We don’t feel the pressure now that we’ve tied (the championship record). I think he’s got as good a shot as anybody of winning this year. When you get down to the end, he knows how to win.”

Asked whether winning an eighth championship would help his argument for being stock-car racing’s historically best driver, Johnson’s response to Yahoo Sports seemed to hint that he’s not so keen on even participating in the argument.

“Eight would end a lot of conversations, but I am so full and satisfied and content where I am at, it makes me smile just thinking about eight,” he said.

“And I honestly believe I have a great opportunity to do it. My retirement is nowhere close by. I am as mentally as strong and sharp as I’ve ever been. It’s the same physically. The team, the sponsors, everything is in place.”

His message for the final laps of a special career is that these are not the days to sweat the results. It is time not to concern himself so much with the destination, but just enjoy the ride. He’s probably not going to start driving with one arm out the window and sipping a Big Gulp during race cautions. There will be no hula dancer mounted on the dashboard. It’s just that it’s too late to be consumed by the next goal because the goals never end.

“I’m really going to enjoy the years I have left in my career,” Johnson said.

“I know I can win races. I know I should be a threat for more championships. And I really feel in my heart I can win eight. I’d like to do it with a smile on my face and have a good time.”

In racing like any other sport, winning is the lubricant to all the really good times.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.