Johnson Says He’s Is Not On The Top – Yet
By Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent
Phoenix, Ariz. – Knock, knock.
Johnson emerged from the shadows of the off-season last weekend at Daytona International Speedway, looking as determined as ever when taking part in a three-day test session in preparation for the upcoming Grand-Am Rolex 24.
The Johnson sighting, which continued Wednesday in a Phoenix International Raceway promotion at a Scottsdale, Ariz., casino resort, was probably the last piece of news non-Johnson fans wanted to hear six weeks before the season-opening Daytona 500.
If there’s one thing Johnson detractors don’t want to endure is another Johnson drive to a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
Johnson won an unprecedented fifth straight title last season, a feat so significant it has
attracted attention from current and former athletes in other professional sports and also spawned conversation regarding Johnson’s position in NASCAR history.
Is he the greatest ever?
Probably not. At least, not yet, anyway.
Although Johnson is No. 10 on the all-time career list with 53 wins, he trails all-time leader Richard Petty, who won an astounding 200 races. Johnson also trails Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt in championships as both won seven titles, but never more than two straight.
Only Cale Yarborough won as many as three straight crowns.
Even Johnson recognizes it is far too early to even consider him being placed atop such a throne.
“I think it’s a legitimate debate and I’m happy to see the conversation is out there,” Johnson said. “I would love to be considered the best NASCAR driver. But I still feel it’s way too early to form an opinion, especially when a guy is still in the middle of his career. That’s something that’s talked about around retirement, not the stage I’m at now.
“But what I’ve seen by winning these five championships is how it resonates through all of pro sports. Athletes in other sports may not know much about NASCAR, but they know winning five championships in a row at the pro level is virtually impossible.
“I saw (former NBA superstar Michael) Jordan recently (during vacation on the Caribbean island of Anguilla) and was joking about having won six titles. I said, ‘You have six, but you don’t five in a row.’ He smiled and said, ‘You’re right.’
“Like I said, I’m happy to be in the conversation. I feel it’s a good argument to have. But it’s a
little early. People should wait until someone is ready to hang up their helmet.”
What would it take for Johnson to begin assessing his place in the sport’s history?
“I think eight championships would be that,” Johnson said. “If you could pass Earnhardt and Petty, whoever it is, that would probably be the seal.”
Johnson, however, isn’t looking that far down the road. The future is for dreamers, Johnson reasoned. Johnson is focus on the present, which at the moment includes trying to add a sixth straight crown.
“I’m not one to look too far ahead,” he s aid. “I’m also realistic. At some point this is going to come to an end, let’s be honest. As long as I put in 110 percent and so does the team, I’ll be content with where we finish. I’d be foolish to throw a fit and be upset if we weren’t able to win six in a row.”
As for those that have grown weary of Johnson’s domination and believe Johnson’s reign should run out of gas for the good of the sport, Johnson hardly minds the chatter.
“I actually enjoy it,” Johnson said. “The reason I enjoy it is when I was growing up watching NASCAR, the guy that dominated it was hated terribly. It was Dale Earnhardt. Then, it went on to Jeff Gordon. And, then, I guess now it’s me.
“I get it. I understand it. But at the end of the day I’m making people mad for that reason, then we’re doing well.”
Doing well? Try great.
In nine seasons, Johnson never has finished worse than fifth in the standings, He’s much-appreciative of success he never dared envision.
“Growing up in southern California, I knew of NASCAR,” Johnson said. “But I thought Indy car was the route I was going to pursue. It’s mind-boggling to me to have this much success in this short period of time.
“Yes, I believe in myself. But in my mind, I don’t say I’m better than another driver or I’m going to win a championship or a race. I don’t do that. I find that’s in the arrogant or cocky category. Anytime I’ve allowed myself to go that route, reality has slapped me in my face and things have gone wrong. So I’ve been humbled.
“I also spent a large part of my career as a ‘B’ driver on a two-car team so I spent a large part of my career in the shadows. I’ve had to find some inner peace with my own abilities and my own kind of goals, to know what I’m capable of. It was just all about building that experience, building my skills so when it was time, I was ready to have this kind of success.”
And whether fans and a huge chunk of pit road are ready or not, Johnson is ready to start knocking on the door toward another championship.
– Mark Armijo is the long-time auto racing beat writer for the Arizona Republic and a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com12 Comments