Johnson on Course Toward History

Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson enjoys his 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship with his family, a celebation some say will be repeated in the coming years. (Photo: Getty Images)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. - More than three hours after he set a course toward history, Jimmie Johnson posed behind his six NASCAR Sprint Cup championship trophies. He held 3-year-old daughter Genevieve, while wife Chandra cradled 10-week-old daughter Lydia.

Johnson and his wife flashed model-perfect grins, the king and queen in this realistic chess set where the trophies played the role of pawns. Cameras clicked repeatedly, capturing a family portrait unlike any other.

“I’m trying ... to soak it all in,’’ Johnson said before the photo shoot.

Should he overlook something in this championship celebration with friends and family at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he’ll have other chances many think. With six titles in the past eight years, talk escalates about Johnson becoming the sport’s most decorated driver, surpassing the seven championships Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt each won.

“I’m going to tell you now that I won’t be surprised if he wins 10 championships,’‘     teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, standing on pit road shortly after Sunday night’s season finale “So when he wins 10 and you come and ask me, I’m going to tell you, “Man, didn’t I already tell you I was not surprised.’

“They’ve got the potential if they keep together. It’s kind of like a good rock band. If they can keep on pumping out records, can’t do no wrong.’’

Petty foresees a day when he’ll be No. 2 on the chart for most most championships behind Johnson.

“He’s liable to go for eight to 10,’’ Petty said.

Why stop there? Johnson has won six of the 10 titles in the Chase era. Surely, there are more championships to come. Many more.

“Unfortunately, we’re racing during the Jimmie Johnson era,’’ said Denny Hamlin, who lost the 2010 title to Johnson in the season’s final race and has not come close to challenging Johnson for the crown since.

“I think being out there and racing with him, I can say that I think he’s the best that there ever was. He’s racing against competition that is tougher than this sport’s ever seen.’’

Petty won’t get into that discussion about who’s the best all-time. Instead, he says he beat his competition in his era, Earnhardt beat his competition and Johnson is beating his now.

Until this year, Johnson had vanquished a different driver for the title. He defeated Matt Kenseth in 2006, Jeff Gordon in 2007, Carl Edwards in 2008, Mark Martin in 2009, Hamlin in 2010 before beating Kenseth again this year.

In this competitive period - there were 17 different winners this season, the second-highest total in a season since 2004 - Johnson has been a constant. He is the sport’s sun. Everyone else revolves around him.

Crew chief Chad Knaus says Johnson “can do things with a racecar that most mortals can’t.’’

Knaus related an experience years ago at Dover before Johnson won his first championship. As Johnson discussed his car’s handling with his teammates, he noted a gap in the Turn 1 stands and how the wind came through there and affected his car. Johnson said if he entered the corner a certain way, he could use the wind to help him get through the corner better.

Robbie Loomis, crew chief for Jeff Gordon at the time, asked Knaus: “Is he just ... crazy?’’

No, said Knaus, that’s just Johnson.

“You don't have a lot of guys that can do that,’‘ Knaus said of Johnson’s astute sensory. “You don't. Jimmie can do it. Does he do it every time? No. But there's certain times at certain tracks that he can make things happen that other drivers just really can't.’’

Maybe that’s why Johnson won his first championship in 2006, which was when the Car of Tomorrow debuted, and won this year’s crown in the first year of the Gen-6 car. Different car, same result.

Another challenge awaits Johnson. NASCAR appears set to make some rule changes with the car for next season. A Dec. 9 test at Charlotte Motor Speedway is set to confirm the new rules package.

That will keep Johnson’s focus while others discuss if he can win seven or more championships before he’s done driving.

“There's change coming,’’ the 38-year-old said, referring to the car. “Don't know exactly what it looks like yet. You hear rumblings about format changing. Our sport is ever‑changing, trying to adjust to an ever‑changing world. The target is moving on us. I feel like we can chase the target pretty darn well, especially if we stay connected and united as we have. I don't see why that would change any.’’

The only change to Johnson could be his title. Seven-time champion. Eight-time champion. Greatest ever.

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