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Johnson: ‘The Cool Thing Is We’re Not Done Yet’

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 23 2009
Jimmie Johnson has No. 4 in hand. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Jimmie Johnson has No. 4 in hand. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

Homestead, Fla. – As Jimmie Johnson approached his record-setting fourth-consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, Rick Hendrick said he kept thinking about the kid he used to give cheeseburger money and rides to and from the racetrack.

“He’s come an awful long way from those days,’’ Hendrick said last Friday as Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet team prepared to put the finishing touches on a mark unparalleled in 61 years of NASCAR history.

Moments after his solid fifth-place finish on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, giving him a final margin of 141 points over series runner-up and teammate Mark Martin, Johnson sat silently in his race car in the second turn of the 1.5-mile track, waiting for NASCAR to give him the word to head for the championship celebration.

“It was neat to have a few minutes over there just to smile and be proud of what we’ve done,’’ Johnson said.

“(I thought about) just where I started, riding around in a 1979 Ford van with a little 8-foot enclosed trailer behind it, going to motorcycle races around the country. … There’s just a lot of little things that came into my mind from when I was a kid riding dirt bikes. I thought about my first four wheel experience, (the) first time I drove a stock car.

“I was thinking on the backstretch over there that my first race in an ASA car was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and I was fast, but I didn’t know how to pass anyone,’’ he continued. “I was on the radio trying to ask the crew chief, `How do I pass?’ He goes, `Man, I don’t know; I set the car up. It’s your job. You’ve got to figure that part out.’  I just didn’t know how to pass anybody; I’d follow them around and I didn’t know what to do.’’

That is certainly no longer the case.

Johnson’s latest title ties him with teammate and friend Jeff Gordon and leaves him trailing only seven-time champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. The 34-year-old Californian has never finished worse than fifth in the points in any of his eight Cup seasons and has already accumulated 47 victories, placing him 13th in career wins.

He has been particularly devastating to the competition since the Chase for the championship format began in 2004, finishing second and fifth before starting his unprecedented string of titles. In 60 Chase races, nobody has come close to Johnson’s 18 wins, 38 top-fives and 55 top-10s.

You can start a great debate, but put the total package together and you can easily make a case for Johnson already being the best ever in the stock car sport.

Asked his opinion, Johnson, typically frank, said, “I think it’s up there. You know, the fact that nobody has done this, I think it puts me near the top.

“I certainly look at the seven championships by both Earnhardt and Petty, their race wins, their being in the sport for the number of years and all that they’ve done. Those two guys are kind of at a draw at the top.

“Hopefully, my stats and win totals and championship totals can rival theirs. But it puts us up there, it really does. And the cool thing is we’re not done yet.’’

Now the question is how many championships can Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the 48 team put together before they’re through?

There was a lot of speculation after Gordon won his fourth title in 2001 at the age of 30 that he would at least be able to match Petty and Earnhardt. But, partially thanks to Johnson, his own discovery, the closest he has come in the last eight years was second in 2007.

Of course, Johnson hasn’t done it alone. Knaus has been there since 2002, the driver’s rookie season, and most of the 48 team has defied the odds and stayed together.

“That’s such a rare thing that you can’t even imagine how tough it is,’’ said former championship crew chief Ray Evernham, who has since been a team owner and is now an analyst for ABC/ESPN. “The fact that these guys have, for the most part, stayed with the 48 speaks volumes for the pride these guys have in what they are doing.

“I’m sure they’ve passed up more money and opportunities and ignored the bad days and the little problems that always crop up because they know what they have is a very rare thing.”

Hendrick announced last Friday that Johnson has signed a five-year contract extension, through 2015. Can he and the 48 continue to win championships? Can they win seven? Eight?  More?

“It is a goal,’’ he said. “I’m not sure how realistic it is. … I don’t know if we’ll win another championship.  I have no idea what next year will bring and what the challenges will bring as the years go by. There’s just no guarantees on that.

“I feel in my heart we’ll be competitive. But at some point in time we won’t be that team. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure we are that team. But you just never know what the future holds.’’

Jeff Burton, who finished second to race winner Denny Hamlin Sunday, has a pretty good idea of what is going to happen.

“He’s not done,’’ Burton said. “Anybody that doesn’t respect what they’ve done isn’t being fair to them.  … If you had told me four years ago that somebody would win four championship in a row, I would have told you you’re crazy.

“Twenty-nine cars finished in the lead lap (Sunday). That’s how competitive it is what we do.’’

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 23 2009
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