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For all that he has accomplished, Jimmie Johnson's legacy rests on this weekend's finale

By winning in dramatic fashion Sunday, maybe more fans will embrace Jimmie Johnson.

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By winning in dramatic fashion Sunday, maybe more fans will embrace Jimmie Johnson.

Turns out, championships were not enough. Neither were NASCAR records, or even an HBO series.

For all that he has accomplished, Jimmie Johnson has never quite connected with stock car fans. He isn't as well-known as Jeff Gordon, he isn't as beloved as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and he doesn't have the same level of respect as less accomplished legends from days gone by.

Which is why this weekend's season-ending Sprint Cup race could be so critical to Johnson's legacy.

For this could be his signature moment. This could be a defining race. Strange as it seems for a guy who has dominated the sport for four seasons, this could be Johnson's chance for greater credibility.

"You've got three top organizations running for this championship, and that's what the Chase was built around: to have this," said Richard Childress, team owner for third-place Kevin Harvick. "This is a storybook Chase."

For Johnson, this is a chance to be tested in the way NASCAR fans like best.

The championship is no longer about consistency. It is no longer about strategic scheduling.

This is 400 miles, three drivers and one checkered flag.

And that's something Johnson has not had to worry about going into the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in recent years. While winning a record four consecutive season point titles, Johnson has practically treated Homestead as one long victory lap.

That may be impressive in record books, but it hasn't won Johnson a tremendous following. He is criticized for being too consistent. Too calm. Too bland. He is practically criticized for being too good.

"You know, I just don't understand it. To win two of these deals back-to-back is pretty impressive. Three, and then four is just outstanding," said Johnson car owner Rick Hendrick on a conference call Wednesday. "You look at his stats, and he's been amazing.

"It's one of those things that while you're accomplishing unbelievable results, it's (only) after the fact people will look at it and say, 'Man, that was awesome back then.' I think he does have the respect of the garage area, and I think he does have the respect of the competitors. But I think history will have to prove that what he's done has been pretty remarkable."

Johnson has won plenty of races since his points streak began in 2006 — an average of seven per season — but he has never really raced with his back against the wall. With a superior car and crew, Johnson has been more smart than aggressive. He has been more safe than reckless. He keeps a closer watch on strategy than speedometers.

That has made him, by far, the best driver in the sport.

But it hasn't made him wildly popular.

"Four in a row is pretty impressive in today's time. Five in a row would be unbelievable," said Harvick crew chief Gil Martin.

"He should get a tremendous amount of credit just because if you race week-in and week-out, you know what it takes to be there at the end of the race. It's not necessarily being fast all day, it's being smart for three or four hours straight and being calculated enough to know when it's time to race somebody and when it's time to let them go."

That's what makes this race so different, and potentially so important, to Johnson. He heads into Sunday's race trailing Denny Hamlin by 15 points. Harvick is another 31 points behind Johnson.

That means Johnson may not be able to play it safe. Just keeping his car near the top 10 may not be enough if Harvick or Hamlin are running ahead of him.

"The biggest concern I've got is that we haven't gone to Homestead to truly race yet," Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus said. "We've gone down there with a bit of a protective mind-set."

Richard Petty had Cale Yarborough. Darrell Waltrip had Bobby Allison. Dale Earnhardt had Rusty Wallace.

For Johnson, there has been no legendary adversary. No one running neck and neck with him year after year.

There has been a different runnerup for each of his championships, and not a one offered much suspense.

Which is why this race could be Johnson's defining moment. His fallibility has actually made him more attractive. His new role as an underdog has made him seem more human.

It's as if we needed to see Johnson struggle to finally understand the measure of his greatness.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

.up next

Sprint Cup points

With one race to go, only the top three drivers are still mathematically eligible in the Chase for the Championship.

Driver Points Back

Denny Hamlin 6,462—

Jimmie Johnson 6,447 15

Kevin Harvick 6,416 46

Carl Edwards 6,198 264

Matt Kenseth 6,151 311

Jeff Gordon 6,124 338

Kyle Busch 6,115 347

Greg Biffle 6,113 349

Tony Stewart 6,074 388

Kurt Busch 6,033 429

Clint Bowyer 6,028 434

Jeff Burton 5,958 504

Season finale

Ford 400, 1 p.m. Sunday, Homestead-Miami Speedway

TV: ESPN

For all that he has accomplished, Jimmie Johnson's legacy rests on this weekend's finale 11/17/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:49pm]

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