Johnson claims place among greats
Homestead, Fla. • It took Jimmie Johnson just 13 races into his rookie season with Hendrick Motorsports to prove to his team he was a rare talent.
He had just won at Dover for his second victory in four weeks and was debriefing with crew chief Chad Knaus when he brought up a sensation he felt in the car that day that he was certain came from wind blowing through a gap in the grandstands.
It was remarkable insight, Knaus said, from a driver who understands very little about the setup of a race car.
"He can feel the car. He can be one with the car," Knaus said. "I know that sounds foolish, it sounds weird. But, seriously, go to a surfer and ask him about his surfboard. Go to a snowboarder and ask him about his snowboard. Go to a skier, ask him about his skis.
"When they're able to get in that position, and they feel the car, understand what the car is going to do, it's pretty amazing."
Knaus went so far as to claim Johnson does things in the car "most mortals can't."
His resume supports that claim. Johnson continued his romp through the NASCAR record books Sunday night by winning his sixth championship in eight years. With only the mark of seven titles won by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt ahead of him, Johnson is making a solid case to be considered one of the best to ever climb into a race car.
It's a debate he wants no part of, shrugging in his champagne-soaked firesuit Sunday night that those conversations can wait until after he's done racing.
There are some who believe Johnson is a product of his environment, and he wins because he drives for mighty Hendrick Motorsports in a car prepared by Knaus, a crew chief so laser-focused on the No. 48 Chevrolet that it's not always evident if he finds any joy in his job.
There's also an argument that Johnson's titles stem from the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format, which debuted in 2004 as a 10-race playoff. It replaced the decades-old system of crowning a champion based on an entire season, and Johnson reeled off five consecutive titles beginning with Year 3 of the Chase.
Indeed, under the old scoring system, Johnson would not have won titles in 2007, 2008 or 2010. But that's not his problem. He raced under the rules at the time, on the same playing field as everyone else on the track.
As far as Petty is concerned, the debate is pointless.
"All I can say is Earnhardt did his thing in his time against his competition. I did mine against my competition, and he's doing his thing against his competition," Petty said. "We didn't compete with each other. â¦ You can't compare."
Petty is right, it is very difficult to compare. But Johnson has very much earned the right to be part of the conversation by winning his six titles faster than Petty and Earnhardt, by becoming the youngest driver at 38 to reach the mark, and by winning 30 more races (he has 66 total Cup wins) than any other driver in the last 11 years.