Seven-time champ Johnson building case as NASCAR's best ever
November 20, 2016. That's the day Jimmie Johnson joined the most exclusive club in NASCAR by taking the checkered flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch his seventh Cup Series championship.
Johnson's 80th career victory put his name alongside NASCAR legends and Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers to reach the stock car racing world's mountaintop seven times.
With the win, Johnson drew praise from many in the NASCAR industry, with some going as far as to say the driver of the No. 48 is the greatest driver in NASCAR history.
Johnson's stats make a strong case. In what many consider NASCAR's most competitive era, Johnson has always found himself at or near the top of the heap. His 80 wins lead all active drivers, and his .147 winning percentage is best among active Cup drivers. In 543 starts in NASCAR's top series, Johnson has racked up an eye-popping 330 career top-10 finishes and 218 top fives.
"His numbers are better than Richard Petty's numbers, his numbers are better than Dale Earnhardt's numbers," said Kyle Petty. "Until Jimmie came along [David] Pearson had the best numbers when you looked at his average winning numbers. You've got to put Jimmie at the top of the list, the very top of the list. It's a crazy, crazy feat."
Since joining Hendrick Motorsports on a full-time basis in 2002, Johnson's been a force to reckon with. He started his rookie campaign by winning the pole for the Daytona 500. He followed that up by winning three races and leading the points late in the season before slipping to fifth at season's end. Over his first four years in NASCAR's top series, the California native led all drivers with 18 wins, three more than teammate and four-time champion Jeff Gordon during that span.
When asked about his hunger for a seventh championship to tie Earnhardt and Petty, Johnson said it was never about hitting a certain mark. In fact, he didn't expect to have nearly as much success in his career.
"I never thought I'd win this many races or championships, but it wasn't about a number," Johnson said. "I wasn't chasing a stat, I was just going racing. And I think that's what's so beautiful about this and gets me excited for the future is I don't have a number or some spot I'm trying to get to. I'm just racing."
By the time Jimmie won his first title in 2006, he had amassed what would be thought of as a successful career. In 2006 alone, Johnson won the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, two of NASCAR's biggest events on the calendar. He's since won three additional Brickyards and a second Daytona 500 in 2013.
Moments after winning the championship at Homestead, Johnson was met by NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Richard Childress, who helped win six of Dale Earnhardt's seven NASCAR championships.
"Richard Childress caught me before I got out of the racecar, and that man had tears in his eyes and shook my hand and said some really nice things. To have that respect means the world," Johnson told PRN's Mark Garrow.
But it hasn't always been happy times for the Hendrick Motorsports team.
October 24, 2004
A Hendrick Motorsports plane took off from Concord, carrying several members of Hendrick Motorsports' staff, including general manager Jeff Turner, chief engine builder Randy Dorton, and Johnson's best friend and son of team owner Rick Hendrick, Ricky Hendrick, crashed while en route to Martinsville Speedway. All 10 people on board were killed.
Johnson won that Sunday's race, but there was no victory lane celebration. Instead, all of Hendrick Motorsports was pulled into a meeting with NASCAR, where they learned about the tragic event.
Some 12 years later, Johnson looks back
"Winning this for Rick and Linda and for the entire company is extremely emotional," Johnson said. "I developed the hashtag #SE7EN trying to honor Ricky and to pull this off and remember him and the others on that airplane puts a huge emotional tie on this.
"Ricky was the reason I ended up and Hendrick Motorsports. It's just an honor to drive for them. It's a family environment and a place I'm so lucky I landed."
Master of The Chase
Jimmie Johnson and NASCAR's Chase are synonymous. Since the inception of NASCAR's "playoffs" during the 2004 season, Johnson is the only driver to compete for the championship every year. In his seven championship seasons, Johnson has driven the No. 48 Chevy to victory lane 18 times. In total, he's won 29 Chase races.
To put that in perspective, if you took just Johnson's Chase wins, he'd still rank higher than 10 of the 16 drivers who qualified for the Chase in 2016, including former champions Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski. And the contest isn't even close. The active driver with the second-most Chase wins is 2014 champion Kevin Harvick, who's visited victory lane 11 times in playoff races.
"No math in the world is going to discredit what Johnson's accomplished. He'll be remembered as one of the greatest, if not the greatest this sport has ever seen," said PRN's Brett McMillan.
So where does "Seven-Time" go from here? A new moniker, of course.
"We'll have to work a new nickname," Johnson quipped. "'Six-Time' kind of stuck, but I was hoping it wouldn't stay too long."