Johnson Chases History

Jimmie Johnson

Johnson’s quest for a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship starts here at Daytona International Speedway with Sunday’s Daytona 500 where he is the defending winner. (Photo: Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - So it begins. Here near the beach the road to immortality harkens.

Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt traveled it to become cornerstones in NASCAR’s version of Mt. Rushmore. David Pearson, it could be argued, is with them. The question is if they’ll be joined by Jimmie Johnson - although some would say he’s already there.

Johnson’s quest for a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship starts here at Daytona International Speedway with Sunday’s Daytona 500 where he is the defending winner.

How many times do you know you have the chance to watch history? Often times such moments arrive without warning and context. Johnson’s pursuit of this special title is something one can watch this season or beyond.

Some will question if Johnson deserves a place next to Petty, Earnhardt and Pearson because their titles came under a different system, but Johnson could leave little choice but to add him with an additional title or two or three.

“I feel regardless of car or points system, we'll be a threat,’’ Johnson said. “It would be nice to win one, two, whatever, with the new format.’’

Some are making the case that NASCAR’s new system - an elimination format that ends with four drivers racing for the title in a winner-take-all event at Homestead-Miami Speedway - hinders Johnson’s run to history. Doubters say that Johnson hasn’t had to race for a championship at Homestead. Of course, that’s forgetting 2010 when Johnson trailed Denny Hamlin entering Homestead and won a record fifth consecutive crown.

Still, there’s hope for others.

“I think that (other teams) realize that they're the ones to beat, and we have to do that, but I think they also understand ... this puts everybody else in a better scenario to beat the ‘48’ team in the end,’’ said former champion Dale Jarrett, an analyst for ESPN.

“What I'm intrigued by is to see how they go about it because every time there's been a change, whether it's been in the car or whether it's been in the points, the way that we put points out there, the changes that have been made, they've adapted better than anyone else. Even when they didn't win the championship, they put themselves there. People are going to pay attention to what they're doing.’’

Still, there’s no guarantee that Johnson’s team will get there. Teammate Jeff Gordon seemed on pace to reach seven when he won four titles in seven years, but the championships stopped after 2001.

“I always looked at seven as untouchable,’’ Gordon said.

His attitude has changed based on Johnson’s run of six titles in the past eight years.

“Their team is in their prime and doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon,’’ Gordon said. “All the potential is certainly there. I think they’ll get to seven. Will it happen this year? I don’t know.’’

Johnson’s dominance and crew chief Chad Kanus’ ingenuity have challenged other teams. Teammate Kasey Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis spent time this offseason working a performance psychologist with Hendrick Motorsports, noting how mentally strong Johnson and Knaus are.

Whatever it takes. Johnson has won a series-high 24 Chase races. He and his team repeatedly have shown an ability to recover from challenges and succeed.

This weekend’s race could be another example.

Johnson ran out of fuel coming to the checkered flag in his qualifying race Thursday, triggering a nine-car crash. Johnson’s car was damaged and his team went to a backup car, meaning he’ll have to start near the rear of Sunday’s race.

No problem said Johnson, who is confident he can win his third Daytona 500.

“We have been very impressed and happy with the speed this third car has had,’’ he said. “That was a welcome surprise to see that it was a little quicker than the car we had slated for the 500.”

It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Competitors and fans have seen what Johnson has done for more than a decade. It makes one wonder how far he’ll go.

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