A cursory glance at Jimmie Johnson’s racing resume will tell you that the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is a lock to make the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
But Johnson is still writing history, and in Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he added another gaudy tile to his mosaic of accomplishment.
Johnson now owns the record for most All-Star Race wins with four, breaking a tie with Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jeff Gordon.
Johnson is the only driver in the history of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to win five-straight championships, the last one coming in 2010. In fact, no other driver had ever won more than three straight, and only one driver—Cale Yarborough—had accomplished that trifecta before Johnson came along.
A winner of 62 Cup points races in 410 starts, Johnson already is eighth on the all-time list. Remember, this is a man who got a relatively late start, by modern standards, to his career at NASCAR’s highest level.
He was 26 when he finished his first full season of Cup racing in fifth place in the standings. In the 10 seasons since then, he has won the title five times, finished second twice, third once, fifth once and sixth once.
This year, he tops the standings again through 11 races, with a massive 44-point lead over second-place Carl Edwards. And where four-time champion Gordon, the man who lobbied for Johnson’s hiring at Hendrick, is talking about losing a step at age 41, Johnson, who is just four years younger, is still exploring the depth of his talent.
Yet we don’t appreciate Johnson as much as we should, in part because he makes what he does seem so effortless—and in part because he’s a legitimate threat to the iconic records of drivers who are revered throughout the NASCAR fan base, specifically the record seven championships of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Self-effacing, non-controversial and businesslike, Johnson doesn’t have the larger-than-life presence that Petty and Earnhardt exuded in their heydays. Nevertheless, there’s an enormity to Johnson’s accomplishments.
There are those who discount Johnson’s record, citing the importance of crew chief Chad Knaus to the equation. It’s true that Knaus is essential to Johnson’s success, but the same could be said of the driver/crew chief relationships of other icons of the sport, relationships that were necessary to form the critical mass that produced greatness.
Petty had his Dale Inman. Earnhardt had his Kirk Shelmerdine. David Pearson had his Leonard Wood. Gordon had his Ray Evernham.
There’s justifiable pride, but no braggadocio, in Johnson. He’d prefer to let his record do the talking, and it will. Asked about his legacy after Saturday’s race, Johnson’s reply was predictably modest.
“Truthfully I don’t think it’s a question that I’m to answer,” he said. “I still have a lot of years left in my career, and that’s something that the public, the mass… that’s what other people come up with. I don’t think it’s right for me to sit here and say, ‘Hey, I’m this guy, I’m the guy or anything in-between.
“Very proud of what I’ve accomplished, but I still feel like there’s a lot left I can do in this sport, and I’ll work hard to do that. When I’m old, sitting in a rocking chair, hopefully people think highly of what I’ve done and give me a tip of the hat.”
In all probability, Johnson won’t have to wait that long. If the major story of 2013 is the introduction NASCAR’s new Gen-6 race car, the focus of 2014 is likely to be Johnson’s quest for a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup title.
The King and the Intimidator may have to make room for Jimmie.