NASCAR

NSCS: Jimmie Johnson Ranks Championships With ESPN

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Tom Pennington/NASCAR via Getty Images

 

By Joseph Wolkin – NASCAR Columnist and Editor (@JosephNASCAR)

December 26, 2013

WHITESTONE, N.Y.– Jimmie Johnson is going to be attempting to win a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title during the 2014 season. Even if Johnson does not win the championship in 2014, he has plenty of time to surpass the mark set by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Since joining the Hendrick Motorsports team at the end of the 2001 season, thanks to Jeff Gordon, Johnson has been the most dominant driver in NASCAR, year-in and year-out. Johnson’s career started out with some smaller organizations until he found the powerhouse at Hendrick. His 66 wins, 182 top-five’s and 272 top-10’s in just 435 career starts show just how strong Johnson has been while at the helm of the No. 48 Chevrolet.

In a recent issue of ESPN The Magazine, Johnson lists each championship in terms of how special they were to himself. He believes that each one of his championships were equally special, but we take a look at which championships were truly his strongest outings.

2006:
Johnson’s first championship was long over due. In a perfect world, he would have won the title in 2004 if it were not for Kurt Busch making a miraculous save from hitting the pit wall straight on when a tire swung off of his car, rebounding to finish fifth in that race and the championship. However, Johnson came back two years later with a vengeance. That 2006 championship was great for Johnson.

He was able to dominate the “regular season” after starting the year off by winning his first Daytona 500, and also won the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis in the same season. Johnson also won his first All-Star race during that season. It was the 2006 season which Johnson broke through as a favorite to win races no matter what the track was.

“I say it’s first on this list because it was the first championship we won. I think about just seven, eight years before that, and to end up on the big stage in New York being handed the Sprint Cup trophy — it’s just surreal. I was a dirt rat,” Johnson said about his 2006 season.

2008:
Johnson’s third straight championship was one which no one believed he would ever reach. Heck, no one believed that any driver would ever reach that mark after Cale Yarborough did that while driving for Junior Johnson. In 2008, Johnson was able to tie that mark by edging out Carl Edwards, a man that won two more races than Johnson, and arguably ran better than Johnson did during the season. Winning three races during the Chase for the Cup solidified his championship that year after Edwards had wrecked at Talladega, and the next week at Charlotte.

“That was the third in a row, and I always think back to Champions Week in New York and they surprised me by bringing Cale Yarborough up onstage to give me my ring,” Johnson said. Until then, he was the only driver to have won three straight, and they brought him in to surprise me.”

2013:
In 2013, Johnson was determined to fight for the title. After two years without winning a title, his longest drought since 2002-2005 (before his first championship), Johnson fought harder than ever. With the challenge of the Generation Six chassis, Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, came out strong as it gets with his second career Daytona 500 victory. Johnson’s determination led him to lead over 100 laps on eight different occasions.

Though it was statistically not his strongest year due to a streak of four straight finishes outside of the top-25 before the Chase for the Sprint Cup started, Johnson redeemed himself by having just one finish outside of the top-10 during the closing races of the season. This championship brought Johnson closer to Petty and Earnhardt’s mark of seven titles, which is now in reachable distance for the California native. Besides winning six races, each in dominating fashion, Johnson’s need to run well even with an ill handling car is what truly won him this championship over Matt Kenseth.

“The history of it is just ridiculous. A lot like 2006, it’s a bit of an out-of-body experience. I think about it and it doesn’t make sense that I’m mentioned in the same sentence with Petty and Earnhardt. But the difference between this year and the previous five championships is that I have enjoyed this one more.”

2010:
In 2010, Johnson won his fifth straight title. It was an incredible accomplishment. He was expected to run for the championship again in 2011, but that was his worst year. At this time, Johnson did not win any big races, but he did win several races at key times. Johnson was not as outstanding as he was throughout the other four championships in a row, but he was able to run consistent, something vital in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“But when I think about five in a row, I’ll be honest, I get a little irritated because I think about how easily it could have been six in a row and then seven in a row. Honestly, I think more about the way we lost the ones we lost than I think about the way we won the ones we won.”

2007:
Johnson’s best statistical year was 2007. He was able to rack up 10 wins, including four in a row in the midst of NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. He was not too outstanding during the regular season, but came on stronger than ever during the Chase. However, it was an emotional time for the entire HMS organization.

Johnson and Gordon contender extremely close for the championship in 2007. Gordon came up just 77 points shy of Johnson (in the old points system), even though he had a career-high 30 top-10 finishes, something rare during a 36 race schedule in NASCAR’s premier division. Since then, Johnson has taken a lot of heat from Gordon’s fans as most of them believed that Gordon deserved that championship.

“Emotionally, that was a really tough year because we were racing Jeff [Gordon] and the 24 team all year for the championship. We’re teammates. Our cars and crews were housed in the same race shop. Jeff was the guy who gave me my big break. We were really close friends. [They’ve since grown apart, though Gordon still co-owns the 48 team.] It made for a weird experience. I felt like it was tough on a lot of the people at Hendrick Motorsports, especially Rick. How do you even watch a race when your two cars are fighting it out?”

2009:
2009 was a lot like 2007, except this time, Johnson stretched out his lead over not only Gordon, but his newest teammate, Mark Martin, as well. Johnson won the title by 141 points over Martin, which was nearly a full race’s worth of points during that time, and 179 points ahead of Gordon. At this time, people began hating Johnson for being such a dominant driver. Though HMS drivers finished first-third in the points, Johnson was clearly stronger than the other drivers within the organization. People began to speculate that Johnson was receiving different equipment than the other drivers, but in all reality, he just had a relationship with Knaus that helped develop themselves into a fourth straight title.

He was able to win four races during the Chase for the Sprint Cup that season. His dominance in the Generation Five car was exceptional, as was this championship. Unfortunately, he did not have the best of starts to the season. Johnson first broke into the top-10 in points after the fifth race of the year at Bristol.

“When I think about this one, I just think about resiliency. The knock on us was that we’d never really had to deal with a lot of adversity. Well, we got off to such a terrible start that year and somehow managed to come back and win a fourth straight.”

Overall, each of Johnson’s championships have a lot of the same characteristics. He has been consistent, dominant, aggressive and heroic. With two daughters, Johnson’s priorities have shifted slightly, but he is a better man now, and more importantly, a better race car driver because of it.

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