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Johnson hoping to savor this one

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The chase for history began Sunday night, minutes after the 2013 Chase was over. Jimmie Johnson's drive for seven championships, and perhaps beyond, began as he secured his sixth.

This monumental chase will last at least two full seasons, likely more, as Johnson tries first to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for all-time titles, and then perhaps to surpass them with eight or more.

Matt Kenseth gave it all the effort he could muster in Sunday's season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400, leading the most laps and finishing second, yet that wasn't nearly enough. Johnson fought from as far back as 24th after a mishap and salvaged a ninth-place finish to beat Kenseth by 19 points for the Sprint Cup.

Kenseth was of good cheer, head high, smiling, knowing who and what he was up against: Johnson and the active-legend No. 48 team.

"Never seen anything like this in the sport," Kenseth said of Johnson's onslaught, six titles in eight seasons, "and probably will never see anything like it again."

And listen to Kenseth's teammate, Denny Hamlin, who won Sunday's race, speak of Johnson.

"Being out there and racing against him, I can say that I think he's the best there ever was," Hamlin said. "I think he's racing against competition that is tougher than the sport has ever seen."

All Johnson would acknowledge was that "I have six. We'll see if I can get seven. Time will tell. I think we need to save the argument until I hang up the helmet. Then it's worth the argument. If people want to argue and fight right now, they can, that's fine. But let's wait until I hang up the helmet before we really start talking about this."

Sorry, but the talk has already been going on for days now. It began here on Friday, when Johnson came in with what looked like a comfortable, but not guaranteed, margin of 28 points over Kenseth and 34 over Kevin Harvick.

Friday, Petty himself predicted Johnson could win "eight to 10."

Then just a couple of hours later, Harvick's car owner, Richard Childress, who sent Earnhardt to six of his seven championships, opined that Johnson will "go down in history as one of the greatest, if not the greatest." This, from the closest friend of the greatest NASCAR driver, many feel, ever -- or at least before Johnson.

"He's got many good years ahead of him," Childress said of Johnson. "I think he'll set a lot of records before he decides to hang it up." Johnson is 38.

Much as he'd prefer not to start this conversation now, I told Johnson on Sunday night that the reality is, he will be chasing and/or making history for the rest of his career.

"That reality I'm fine with," he said. "I look forward to the opportunity and certainly hope I can accomplish more. I feel like this team is capable of a lot of great things. And there's still great years out ahead of us.

"But all of that is in the future: seven, eight, Richard said eight to 10 … I just don't want to focus on that yet. This is time to unplug and enjoy the sixth when I still can. We'll be at Daytona for testing soon enough, and I guess by then it's probably appropriate to ask the question.

"But I'm just humbled by the nice things that have been said by competitors, owners and my peers in this industry. And I think their opinion is very important.

"But I don't think my opinion matters. It's not for the athlete, the driver. It's bestowed upon me. It's passed down from others. … But if you look at stats, there's still numbers out there that I need to achieve." Here he meant, of course, seven, eight or whatever number, and reminded everyone he isn't there yet.

"That's why I say until I hang up my helmet it's not necesarrily a fair conversation to have.

"But I know it'll be in the conversation, and I know I'll have to face it."

The big reason Johnson wants time to savor his sixth is that "those first five years were such a blur" when he won five straight titles from 2006-2010. "Things happened so fast. It's not that I didn't enjoy it or appreciate it, it just went by so fast, it seems."

Then came the two-year lull that made him appreciate the heights all the more. So now, "I'm really going to slow things down and enjoy it. This is so, so sweet."

Darian Grubb, now Hamlin's crew chief, was the engineer on the 48 team for Johnson's first three championships.

The key, Grubb said, is "always being there at the finish no matter how bad your car is."

Johnson's car wasn't bad Sunday night, but it was damaged late in the race. He ran in the top five most of the way, while Kenseth dominated the first half and wound up leading the most laps, 144 of the 267.

But on a restart with 74 to go, Jeff Gordon spun his tires and stacked up the field behind him. Johnson and Kenseth made contact in the melee and caused damage to the left front of Johnson's car, suddenly turning a Sunday drive into a suspense show.

"I got hit from behind and I got into the 20," Johnson said of Kenseth's car, "and we were both out of control. I thought, man, this is gonna be wild, the 20 and the 48 wreck on the front stretch. But we all got straightened out.

"I lost a lot of track position, and with the damage and the track-position loss, I wasn't able to cut through traffic as quick as I wanted. But we still got up there inside the top 10."

"They just seem to be able to raise the bar," Kenseth said of the 48 team. "It's amazing, as tight as the rules are, multi-car teams, information sharing, and all that stuff. It's amazing they can figure out how to do that year after year."

With no letup in sight. That's why so many see more championships ahead, even though Johnson maintains he isn't there yet. Most figure he'll get there.