Future Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon has raced against some of the best ever in NASCAR: Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart and once, the King, Richard Petty. So last May when Gordon named the best he’d ever faced in his 25-year career, which of the aforementioned legends did he pick?
None of them. Gordon picked Jimmie Johnson.
And a few months later, Johnson came to the final restart in the final race of the 2016 season with one last chance to win the race, and with it, the title. Johnson would have to get a jump on — and hold off — faster cars. He was, in essence, the underdog in a title fight.
And yet, when the green flag dropped, he found a way to win, getting away on the restart and making sure nobody caught him en route to NASCAR immortality.
The 2016 season wasn’t Johnson’s best year in some ways — his 16 top 10s represent a career low. But he did two things exactly right: He won more races than anyone else, and he put himself in the position to take advantage of every opportunity. Those two things were enough to bring Johnson his seventh title on NASCAR’s biggest stage, something that’s been accomplished just twice before, by Hall of Famers Earnhardt and Petty. Johnson's 80 wins are good for seventh all-time.
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This year, Johnson will try to defend his title with all the resources of Hendrick Motorsports behind him. That’s an organization with 12 titles in the last 22 years. Hendrick engines are some of the most powerful in the garage, and while that can lead to durability questions (and it has in the past), that hasn’t been the case here. Among the four in-house Hendrick teams, there were zero engine failures in 2016. The team fell a tick behind at times last summer, but its recovery revealed no real weaknesses in the organization.
Johnson works well with teammates Kasey Kahne and youngster Chase Elliott, but he really meshes with returning shopmate Dale Earnhardt Jr. The two drivers are close in age, have similar driving styles, and their personalities complement each other well. Johnson and Earnhardt are able to share information but also use what they gain from each other.
Not all teams can use information effectively even if they do share openly, but Johnson and his teammates have mastered the skill.
Johnson’s career is a study in constants. He’s had one sponsor, Lowe’s Home Improvement (and their in-house tool brand, Kobalt). Gordon talked the retailer into taking a chance on Johnson, a relative unknown, in late 2001, and it took some doing to convince them that Johnson was a winner. Johnson has proven Gordon right 80 times since, and Lowe’s (and only Lowe’s) will be on Johnson’s hood for the 16th year in 2017. In today’s NASCAR, that’s unheard of.
Johnson has also had just one crew chief for the vast majority of his career. Chad Knaus has called 78 of Johnson’s wins (the other two came with substitute Darian Grubb while Knaus was serving a suspension) and all seven of his titles. The two have considered going their separate ways and at times argue like a couple that has been married for 30 years, but in the end the allure of another win — and another title — keeps them together. They communicate superbly, and both have long memories when it comes to recalling things that have worked in the past. Knaus is a strong cheerleader, but Johnson isn’t the type of driver who needs one anymore and lets Knaus know it.
There is no longer any question of whether Johnson can reach the seven-title mark or whether he’s a Hall of Fame driver. Those are a given. All that’s left to ask is whether he can do what no driver has done and take an eighth. Are you willing to bet against him?