“I want to be considered the best driver to ever sit in a stock car,” Johnson said. “The undisputed way to pull that off is to win eight championships. That’s what I said a few months back and I know that I put that mark way, way out there in front of me and it’s a lofty goal.
“I’ve accomplished every goal that I’ve set in front of myself, I’ve knocked down and I’m going to put one way out there and hope I get there.”
Johnson became the first NASCAR driver to win five consecutive titles, from 2006-2010. Now, with two races remaining in the 2012 season, Johnson appears to be on the cusp of celebrating his “six-pack” or sixth championship.
Although Johnson might believe eight championships is a “lofty goal,” his fellow competitors know he’s perfectly capable of reaching the mark. He currently holds a seven-point advantage over Brad Keselowski heading into Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. Johnson will start 24th, Keselowski 14th.
Johnson is the only driver to qualify for the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup since the format was initiated in 2004. NASCAR created the Chase the year after Matt Kenseth’s consistency through points racing enabled him to extend his advantage by 90 points over Johnson despite posting just one win in the quest for the 2003 Cup championship.
With the strength of Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 48 Lowe’s team, Kenseth, a perennial title contender himself, doesn’t believe Johnson getting eight is out of the question.
“Well, when you have five in a row you can make comments like that,” Kenseth said. “If it was somebody making a comment like that that hasn’t won one or maybe won one eight or 10 years ago like myself, you would think that was kind of arrogant or something.
“Coming from Jimmie it really isn’t. It is realistic. They have proved that team and that combination of Chad (crew chief Knaus) and Jimmie and the guys at HMS have been the premier team and been the best over the last five to eight years or however you want to look at it. I don’t think that is unrealistic. I hope I can make it unrealistic and we can win some of them but coming from them it is not bad.”
At 37, Johnson certainly has time to best the records of seven-time champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Petty pulled off the feat at 42 in 1979 — the year the Earnhardt era began when he won Rookie of the Year. The following season, Earnhardt won his first of seven titles in the next 14 years. Earnhardt appeared destined for more before a crash took his life in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Johnson’s debut occurred later that year in the fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. A few years later, he earned his first of five straight Sprint Cup championships in 2006 at 26. But after not factoring into the 2011 title (won by Tony Stewart), Johnson acknowledges that he had “no expectations” entering this year. While it’s still stressful maintaining the level of success that has been accustomed with the No. 48 team, Johnson doesn’t seem to mind.
“That’s something that I carried on my shoulders last year,” Johnson said. “I guess part of the pressure I’ve spoken about that was gone after losing last year’s championship, the expectations were wrapped up in that.
“This year has been a lot different. The pressure is there. The pressure is always there. You can’t hide from it. But it’s different. It’s more about me doing the best job I can and this team doing the best job they can than it is keeping a streak alive or for other reasons. This is purely our reasons. As Team 48, we want to win, nothing else.
Knaus is quick to remind pundits that the caliber of racing established by his team dates back well before the first title. The team finished fifth in the standings in its first full season on the Cup tour. And Johnson was second in points to Kenseth in 2003.
“We were battling for championships well before we won our first five,” Knaus said. “We’ve been together for 10-plus years. I can’t think of a season where we weren’t in the championship hunt. So I think that’s something this team and Jimmie is built around. When it’s time to go and make this stuff happen, I think that’s when this team excels.
“The regular season is very important. We understand that you have to build that foundation throughout the course of the first 26 races. But once it’s time to go, I think everybody says you can flip a switch, so on and so forth. I think the thing we do better is we’re able to pull from our past and get out there and do what it is we need to do."
Johnson has been at the center of the team’s success. His ability to raise the bar, as has been the case over the last two weeks when he’s won both races from the pole, is proof of his drive and determination. Johnson accomplished a similar exploit in 2007 when he won four of the final five Chase races to overcome a 68-point deficit to teammate Jeff Gordon and win the title.
Now, Johnson insists he feels “as focused and prepared” as he’s ever been in his current quest for No. 6. He has the comfort and familiarity of the team’s nucleus led by Knaus, which is supported by team engineer Greg Ives and car chief Ron Malec. The pit crew, now in their second season together, has jelled nicely and continues to execute well under pressure.
In two weeks, Johnson very possibly will be celebrating the next accomplishment in achieving his current goal.
“If I don’t, I know that I’ve tried and given 100 percent and very proud of whatever the stats are at that point when I retire," Johnson said. "Putting one way out there and we’ll see if I get to it.”
And if Johnson does win an eighth Sprint Cup championship, there’s no doubt he will have earned another title — greatest of all time.