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The Drive for Five


Johnson’s four consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championships are a feat never achieved in the 61-year history of the sport. Not by the sport’s king, Richard Petty. Not by the sport’s most beloved and ruthless competitor, Dale Earnhardt. And not by Johnson’s mentor and modern day NASCAR archetype, Jeff Gordon.

In fact, winning four titles consecutively in any professional league is almost unheard of in today’s sports landscape. But Johnson already has four in the bag, and is aiming — with deadly accuracy — at a fifth.

Johnson’s historic run began with Title No. 1 in 2006, but the unofficial start actually occurred in the winter of ’05. By then, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had been paired together for four years. In that span, the No. 48 Lowe’s-sponsored team enjoyed a successful run, tallying an impressive 18 wins and four top-five championship finishes. Yet, for all the trophies, the big hardware — a Cup trophy — had eluded them.

And the strain of getting oh-so-close only to fall just shy was taking its toll.

In-race bickering and frayed nerves had grown to the point where car owner Rick Hendrick had seen and heard enough. With rumors of a Johnson-Knaus split flying around the NASCAR garage, Hendrick called the two principles in to the shop, sat them down and gave them a bottle of milk and a bag of cookies. Then, Hendrick walked out.

The message was clear: If you want to act like children, then you will be treated as such. But if you’re ready to behave as adults, then hash out your differences and go about winning the championships you know you can win.

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The rest, as they say, is history. Johnson and Knaus went on a roll that trumps all others in the sport — four titles along with 29 wins in four seasons, a dominating run that is on par with the greatest streaks in sports history.

The closest any Cup team has come was in the late 1970s, when Cale Yarborough and team owner Junior Johnson paired up to reel off three straight titles. And the last time a major professional sports team enjoyed a four-peat was when the New York Islanders raised the Stanley Cup trophy from 1980-83.

Now, the team pursues its fifth straight, and a place among the great teams of all time, regardless of sport. Only three times in history has a team won (at least) five consecutive titles — the New York Yankees (’49-53) and Montreal Canadiens (’56-60) each won five in a row, and the Boston Celtics captured an amazing eight straight (’59-66).

Of course, nothing is guaranteed in a format like NASCAR’s 10-race Chase. Drivers get hot, then cool off. It’s about timing and handling the pressure at hand. Pressure that Johnson and Knaus are all too familiar with.

“I just know from experience that the Chase is its own environment,” Johnson says. “When we wake up Monday morning, for most guys, there’s a pit that develops in your stomach and doesn’t go away. It’s the championship pit and it’s there.

“We are all going to wake up with it and deal with it and some guys handle it better than others. I think our team, the last four years, has been really comfortable with that pit in their stomach and dealt with it well.

“My guys are ready. I’m ready.”

History, beware.