Friday, August 17, 2018
Sports

Fennelly: Like it or not, NASCAR history is in Jimmie Johnson's grasp (w/ video)

He will be cheered. He will be booed.

That's the deal in his game, maybe any game.

All that and more will happen today if Jimmie Johnson rides to a championship at Homestead in the final race of the Sprint Cup season. That's because he will pull alongside legends Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for seven championship titles, whether people like it or not. Some will like it not.

There will be good, sturdy NASCAR fans who won't accept that Johnson belongs on the same track with Petty and Earnhardt. Plus, he's too boring, all those perfectly formed sentences and all.

Where Junior Johnson ran moonshine, Jimmie Johnson runs triathlons.

The old days are middle-of-the-road-dog dead.

Title No. 7 will say Jimmie Johnson belongs in the club forever, even if it won't gain him universal acceptance in the grandstands.

"I think anybody who's winning gets booed," Johnson said this week. "I watched Earnhardt get booed. I watched (Jeff) Gordon get booed. When you get older and don't win as much, you get cheered a bit more. I watched that for both those guys. I get more cheers now, so I hope that doesn't mean I'm running out of wins and championships."

So he doesn't own a nickname like "King" or "The Intimidator." He doesn't have as rabid a following as Dale Earnhardt Jr. or as rabid a persona as Tony Stewart, who drives his final Sprint Cup race today. Johnson doesn't do backflips off his car roof after wins or get into pit brawls.

He just wins.

And if he goes out today and beats the other members of the "Championship 4" — defending champion Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards — there will be no way around his grip on history.

Greatness is never boring.

Johnson isn't steering clear of what's at stake this afternoon.

"I'm not running from it," he said. "I'm not hiding from it."

In fact, he has been wearing a race helmet that reads "Chasing 7," with Petty and Earnhardt's faces on it.

Not that Johnson is unhappy with what he already has: 79 wins, the most among active drivers; his DiMaggio streak of five consecutive championships from 2006-10; $150 million in race earnings alone; a beautiful home, a beautiful family, a beautiful life.

But he wants 7.

Petty, who will be at Homestead today, won No. 7 in his 19th season. Earnhardt won No. 7 in his 16th season. Johnson could do it in his 15th season. And he might have room for more titles, even with the precarious nature of the new Chase for the Championship, where one bad playoff day could torpedo your season.

"Jimmie has done it incredibly fast," said Kyle Petty, King Richard's son. "My father, when I was interviewing him, spoke about Jimmie's five in a row. … My father was just mesmerized by five in a row, honestly. I think we kind of think the same. That's the most underrated record in all of sports, what Jimmie did there. But you know what? (My father) looked at it and said Jimmie may just be pausing at seven. He may go to eight. Here's a guy with the potential to go on."

Who knows how much longer Johnson, 41, will run. There are young, fast men in NASCAR ready to take his place such as Chase Elliott and Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones.

"These may be the next guys that, in 15 or 20 years, are knocking on those (Nos.) 6 and 7 doors," Kyle Petty said. "But right now, Jimmie's there."

Jimmie's there.

As close as can be.

Greatness is never boring.

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Published: 08/17/18