Jimmie Johnson's has now made 600 Monster Energy Cup Series starts and over the weekend I thought "holy cow" I've been around for every single one of them, witnessing one of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all-time do his thing.

I remember his first start in 2001.  He made three that year, all late in the fall, gearing up to go full-time with Rick Hendrick the following season.  At Charlotte in October Ken Howes, a trusted Hendrick lieutenant was listed as the official crew chief, but Chad Knaus was already in the picture as well. Johnson's first appearance at NASCAR's highest level wasn't anything to write home about. He started 15th and after crashing wound up 39th.  It was, however, almost an identical start to his Cup career as Jeff Gordon, who also wrecked out in his first race, when he ran the season-finale at Atlanta in 1992.

The following year Johnson captured the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500 and ten races in he wheeled into Fontana's victory lane, a Cup winner for the first time. The rest, as they say, is "historeee". 

Remarkably, he's become the 29th driver to reach this milestone with his world not really changing, giving Johnson several things that make it very special. "I guess the first three would be all 600 starts at Hendrick Motorsports, all 600 starts with Lowe's, and then, for all intents and purposes, all 600 starts with Chad Knaus. I don't know how the other 28 guys got to their 600 starts, but I have to assume we are in a pretty unique situation there."

It also might be unique the native of El Cajun, CA is in his 17th season and physically hasn't been all that beat up. His scariest crash might have been at Pocono, and, ironically, it was almost an instant replay of Bubba Wallace's frightening, teeth-rattling wreck Sunday.  Johnson, however, will admit to feeling the "mileage", the wear and tear, but at the same time he says, "I feel like being on top of my fitness and hydration and nutrition has helped the physical aspects of it and I'm in better shape now than I was when I started and I think photos will prove that when you look at my rookie season."

He also admits, "From an experience standpoint, emotional standpoint, I mean it's a long grind. I'm 17 years in and there are definitely some scars in there."

One that's left a mark is the current losing streak he's been mired in since last June and has now reached 44 races.  "You know it's been a tough 18 months there is no doubt about it," Johnson confessed. "I think I personally have gone through moments of confident in myself, not confident in myself. But any athlete, it doesn't matter the sport you are in, when you have a dry spell, this type of scenario for a long stretch of time it is tough on you and it's been tough on me."

"The cool thing is, though, I can continue to wake up every morning and pinch myself that I drive a race car for a living.  This is a sport that I've been very fortunate to make a career, start off as a hobby, and I go through that checklist and remind myself of those things if I am having a bad day."

Now, 42 Johnson also points out he's had droughts before when people weren't paying as close attention. "I've had a lot of different tough times through my career.  I think many forget about or maybe don't even know because I've been doing this so damn long. But my Busch days, my ASA days, periods of time in off-road racing, periods of times in motocross as I was learning a new car, a new division, there have always been tough times and those tough times made me who I am today and what we are going through right now is going to make me stronger."

They say you can always find out more about a person during the hard times than the good, when things aren't going their way and life, as they might have known it, has changed or disappeared.  I've thought a lot about that as I listened to Jimmie talk about his winless streak when the questions started popping up about it earlier this year and when he met with the media at Pocono over the weekend.  Does it frustrate him? Yes.  Does it aggravate him this is such a hot topic? Oh yes. Yet, at the same time he's held his head high, hasn't let it overwhelm him, and he hasn't chewed out anyone in the press for broaching the subject.

Johnson's always been a class act. First, he proved it as a winner and a seven-time Cup champion.  Now, he's proving it as a mere mortal, who can take a hard shot to the chin and refuses to whine about it or be knocked out.

We haven't seen the last of JJ in victory lane. In time his cars will get as strong as his attitude and he will win again. You can count on it.