Jimmie Johnson recoils from the question and quickly pivots. He'll have no part of trying to assess his greatness among the 2,854 drivers who have started races at NASCAR's highest level, especially with some of Sprint Cup's greatest champions sitting just feet away in a long row of chairs last week. So he cracked a joke hoping to draw Richard Petty into the conversation. Crickets.
"A grin?" he said, trying to conjure a reaction from the man who shares the record of seven championships with the late Dale Earnhardt. "That's all I get? A grin."
"I don't think I have, or any driver has, the right to proclaim their spot in history," Johnson said, finally addressing the question. "That's for the fan base, the guys that have done it and are in that club and were accepted into that club. I don't comment about it because I'm 33 and still racing, and I don't feel like it's my spot to say those things.
"I also feel that I have a lot of years left in the car to really make my mark in the sport."
It's a question Johnson will field more in upcoming seasons. He is a 36th-place finish today at Homestead-Miami Speedway from his third consecutive championship. Only Cale Yarborough has accomplished such a feat in six decades of NASCAR. Johnson is in the sweet spot of a career that has been sweet from its inception in 2002, having been second in points twice and no worse than fifth in seven full seasons.
"Fifth — that's a bad year for them," said Hendrick Motorsports teammate and four-time champion Jeff Gordon.
With NASCAR's most successful team behind him, arguably the most innovative and on-task crew chief — Chad Knaus — on his pit box and his No. 48 Chevrolet team proven masters of the Chase for the Championship system that determines the series champion, Johnson is seemingly in position to thrust himself into the sport's pantheon, whether he is willing to admit it or not.
"There's no reason to think he couldn't win three or four more (championships) in the next eight or nine years," 1999 champion Dale Jarrett said. "There's no reason to think he doesn't have great opportunity to challenge seven championships."
So, therefore, is the stunning possibility of Johnson equaling his friend/mentor/teammate/car co-owner's total of championships next season.
Gordon met Johnson in 2000 at a Nationwide Series race when Johnson, then looking for a full-time ride, asked him for career advice at a drivers meeting. When Johnson subsequently passed Gordon in a three-wide move on the last lap, Gordon called team owner Rick Hendrick to suggest Johnson for the new race program the team was formulating. Gordon agreed to take an equity stake in the new No. 48 team, helped pitch him to sponsor Lowe's and guided his early career.
Now Johnson is surpassing his benefactor. Gordon is sixth on the all-time list with 81 wins and is best among actives, but Johnson has 17 more wins (40 total) than Gordon to lead all drivers since his rookie season.
"The one reason I felt three in a row has only ever happened one other time is it's very easy to have a great year, win the championship and be hesitant to make changes to win it again next year," Gordon said.
Gordon won three championships in his first six seasons, two consecutively in 1997 an '98 and claimed his most recent, at age 29, in 2001. Johnson would have three in seven full seasons.
"The magic number is 30 years old," retired three-time champion Darrell Waltrip said. "That's when you're at your best. That's when you have to capitalize on what you got. Maybe 28-35. Look at history, me, Dale any of us, there's a number in there and a period of time in there when you dominate."
But Waltrip, in a seemingly odd twist of logic, said Johnson does not qualify as a great right now, no matter if he takes four fewer years than Waltrip to attain three titles, no matter if "he's the man today."
"That's a qualification. Longevity is, too," Waltrip asserted. "Three championships is great, (but) how about 84 wins or 105 wins? Or 200? It's not just one aspect; it's the whole thing. You have to have the wins, you have to have the championships, and you have to hang around if you want to be great and be one of greats, all time."
Johnson has 40 wins in 254 races, a 15.75 percentage. Waltrip finished his 29-year career with 84 wins in 809 races for a 10.38 percentage.
Petty believes Johnson can reach seven titles but thinks his performance once his run of titles is broken will actually be the determining factor.
"We'll see what he can do next year," Petty said. "It's over a period of time. I ran into the deal and also Earnhardt, where we won two and lost one, and then won two more, so we won four out of five. We'll see if he can win four out of five and put some more together."
And then maybe the question is answered for Johnson.