Jim­mie John­son, greatest of all time? He is in the mix

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - SPORTS - By Jenna Fryer

The con­grat­u­la­tory mes­sages started rolling in long be­fore Jim­mie John­son had fin­ished his oblig­a­tory cham­pi­onship pho­tos. Larry Bird. Mia Hamm. Michael Phelps. Mario An­dretti. Drew Brees. The Chicago Cubs.

The list of dig­ni­taries — and the friends and neigh­bors who toi­let-pa­pered his North Carolina home overnight — shows just how sig­nif­i­cant this lat­est mile­stone is for John­son.

Greatest of all time? Maybe. He cer­tainly de­serves to be in the con­ver­sa­tion.

John­son joined Richard Petty and Dale Earn­hardt as the only driv­ers in NAS­CAR to win seven ti­tles with a race-win­ning run Sun­day at Homestead­Mi­ami Speed­way. His record-ty­ing cham­pi­onship came in a bizarre year for John­son and his Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports team, and on a day that did not be­long to the iconic No. 48 Chevro­let un­til the fi­nal lap of the race.

Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports was not good this year, and never found the speed to match Joe Gibbs Rac­ing and its fleet of Toy­otas. John­son, for most of the sea­son, was never even men­tioned as a ti­tle con­tender.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion buck­led down, im­proved its cars and got John­son in po­si­tion to race for his sev­enth ti­tle. Then he did the rest. When Carl Ed­wards wrecked Sun­day night to es­sen­tially lose the cham­pi­onship, John­son charged through the melee and found him­self sud­denly lead­ing the two re­main­ing ti­tle con­tenders. On a night when he’d started last — his team was found to have ma­nip­u­lated the body of his car af­ter it had passed in­spec­tion — and clearly wasn’t as good as the other three con­tenders, he had some­how lucked into the lead.

He still had to earn the win, though, and did it with the restart of his life to hold off Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. He led one lap and it was the one that mat­tered.

“He is prob­a­bly the most un­der­rated cham­pion in this sport,” said his crew chief, Chad Knaus. “He is a fan­tas­tic, fan­tas­tic in­di­vid­ual, an amaz­ing race car driver. Most peo­ple in the sit­u­a­tion we were just in would crum­ble. He didn’t even wa­ver. He knew what he needed to do. He knew what the de­mands were on him at that point in time, and he made it hap­pen.

“We’ve got a great team. We’ve got a great owner. We’ve got a great ev­ery­thing at Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports. But the fact of the mat­ter is the real spark in this whole thing is Jim­mie.”

A fa­tigue per­haps set in when John­son reeled off five con­sec­u­tive ti­tles. Fans didn’t seem to ap­pre­ci­ate his dom­i­nance, cer­tainly not the way they revered Petty or Earn­hardt.

Al­most each John­son cham­pi­onship was met with a col­lec­tive yawn, when they should have been cel­e­brated for their unique achieve­ment.

John­son, at 41, is the youngest driver to win seven. Petty was 42 when he did it in 1979, while Earn­hardt was 43 in 1994. He also col­lected his seven ti­tles in a 10-year span. Earn­hardt needed 14 years to do it, while Petty did it in 15 sea­sons.

John­son’s 80 ca­reer vic­to­ries rank sev­enth all time, one spot ahead of Earn­hardt.

“I think the five in a row was pretty phe­nom­e­nal, and I think win­ning seven and ty­ing seven is pretty spe­cial,” said team owner Rick Hen­drick. “It’s spe­cial to see him tie those guys. I think it’s good for the sport, and I think it draws a lot of at­ten­tion to our sport. We had Ga­torade, had a lot of guys like Pey­ton Man­ning telling him how neat it was, and Ser­ena Wil­liams. I think it’s go­ing to be a big shot in the arm for not only Jim­mie but our sport.”

John­son will likely add to his to­tals. With re­tire­ment still a ways off, he has a chance to win eight ti­tles, and as he drank a beer and ate a slice of cold pizza in a cham­pag­ne­soaked fire­suit, he was al­ready be­ing asked about the pos­si­bil­ity of eight.

“I don’t know what the chances are, but let’s go,” he said. “I’m so ex­cited to put that in front of my­self and the team has a hur­dle to get over and an ac­com­plish­ment to achieve. I had a lot of fun rac­ing for the sixth. This one and the calm na­ture and the way we went about busi­ness and got it done only gives me more con­fi­dence for the fu­ture.

“I hon­estly feel like I’m play­ing with house money. I never as­pired to be fa­mous. I never as­pired to be a cham­pion. I just wanted to race.

“I think it makes us re­ally dan­ger­ous, and I look for­ward to the chal­lenge of try­ing to get num­ber eight.”

DAVID GRA­HAM — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Jim­mie John­son holds up the win­ners tro­phy as his wife Chan­dra and Ed­sel Ford, right, looks on af­ter the NAS­CAR Sprint Cup auto race Sun­day in Homestead, Fla.

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