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Johnson sets standard for greatness

Jimmie Johnson has won six of the past eight Sprint Cup Series championships. Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR/Getty Images

For now, Jimmie Johnson wants little part of ranking where his feat of winning six of the past eight Sprint Cup Series championships places him in the annals of sports.

At age 38, he figures he still has plenty of unfinished business. But he didn't deserve the aggravation of one of the oldest, most tired stunts in the playbook that Donovan McNabb, the former NFL quarterback-turned-talking head, revived last weekend as Johnson was chasing history. "Do I think he's an athlete? Absolutely not," McNabb said on FoxSports1 panel show last Friday. "He sits in a car and he drives, so that doesn't make you athletic."

McNabb's remarks caused a bit of a firestorm during a week in which top rivals and past NASCAR champions raved about Johnson's greatness in the same glowing terms that NBA players used to concede titles to Michael Jordan by November, or cyclists used to sigh and then say the Tour de France was Lance Armstrong's to lose.

What they said proved they already know what the rest of the jock world is only now catching onto: Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team have earned a place among the greatest dynasties that any sport has ever seen.

Rival team owner Richard Childress, who sent Dale Earnhardt to six of his seven championships, predicted Johnson will "go down in history as one of the greatest, if not the greatest."

The fact that Johnson is great at driving his No. 48 car rather than swinging a golf club or tennis racket, or sitting astride a bike or a thoroughbred roaring down the homestretch in a Triple Crown race doesn't diminish his place in the sports pantheon. There was something supremely cool and above it all about the way Johnson imperturbably flicked McNabb's insult aside as calmly as he pulls his car out of a spin when it seems headed toward the wall.

"Yes, I am an athlete, and so is every other driver in one of these race cars -- even Tony Stewart," Johnson told reporters with a laugh.

Which was pitch perfect.

That Johnson was even asked to parry McNabb on Sunday night during his postrace euphoria at Homestead-Miami Speedway after he'd moved one championship behind tying the great Richard Petty and Earnhardt's career record of seven Cup titles, says more about the folks raising such doubts. They don't pay close enough attention to what race car driving demands, or the remarkable pace Johnson has maintained even though he's competing against the best, most sophisticated competition the sport has ever seen.

Johnson, by any definition, exhibits the essence of a great champion.

Hendrick Motorsports has now won a record 11 championships overall -- six of them with Johnson from 2006-13, four with Jeff Gordon and one with Terry Labonte.

As team accomplishments go, those numbers are similar to seven straight NCAA titles the UCLA Bruins won, the six Stanley Cups the Montreal Canadians captured from 1953-60 and the six NBA titles the Chicago Bulls seized from 1991-98 with Michael Jordan, a fellow Charlotte resident who needled Johnson before Sunday's race about still having "only" five championships.

"I can't wait to text him and say, 'Hey buddy, I've caught up,'" Johnson said.

There's no telling how many more titles Johnson may rack up.

He reached his six titles in three fewer full seasons than Earnhardt and Petty did. Given the sustained brilliance of Johnson and his team, he has a good shot to match the record of seven that Petty didn't get until he was 42 and Earnhardt didn't claim until he was 43.

Petty, now 76, predicted Friday that Johnson will likely win eight to 10 championships.

But the numbers only partly explain why Johnson shouldn't be diminished as just a guy who sits in a car with the gas pedal pushed to the floor. That ignores everything else that being a champion driver and world-class athlete demands.

Crew chief Chad Knaus raves about Johnson's gift for giving astute feedback to his crew during the weeks of extensive testing and set up of every car they campaign. "I've worked with a lot of fantastic race car drivers and I've seen a lot of drivers come and go in our sport," Knaus told USA Today last week. "Jimmie is, for me and for our time, the best driver to ever sit in a race car."

One the race begins, Johnson's ability to process the raw information hurtling at him far exceeds anything McNabb or Peyton Manning has ever been asked to do as they survey an 11-man NFL defense on Sundays. Remember, Johnson and the other top finishers at Homestead roared around the 1.5-mile oval at an average speed of around 177.6 mph -- or about 260.5 feet per second.

That's light years faster than NFL sack artists J.J. Watt or Clay Mathews travel. Even the best slap shots don't come at the greatest NHL goalies faster than 110 mph, about 60 mph less than what Johnson reacts to.

And don't forget the sheer volume of stimuli Johnson has to handle: the chaos of the other cars around him, the need to read the race as it's unfolding, the noise pounding in his ears and vibration of the rocket-like engine he's strapped into; the 100-plus degree temperatures in the cockpit as he races for three-plus hours and 500 miles.

It takes a diamond-hard mindset to win at all, let alone stay on top for nearly a decade as Johnson has while everyone else was shooting for him.

Johnson's 66 Sprint Cup Series victories since he joined the Hendricks team in 2002 are 18 more than Stewart, his next closest rival.

To dominate the way he has, Johnson has to have a Triple Crown jockey's feel for what's going on with his car and the vision to see a winning line around the track and the tactical sense to know when to push the pace and when to settle back, waiting for opportunity. He has to have the technical driving ability to move in and out of openings and save himself from trouble and spinouts.

He and his crew talk about game planning for every eventuality -- which they do -- but they also focus on being ready to change on the fly, depending on how weather and track conditions and caution flags are impacting everything from the car's tire wear to when to refuel.

It's an art.

And still, Johnson doesn't stop there.

Much like Jordan, albeit in a much less demonstrative way, the low-key Johnson has an off-the-charts competitive drive to win, dominate and succeed.

McNabb, for example, might be interested to know that Johnson actually prefers to call himself an "endurance athlete" -- not just an athlete.

Much as Tiger Woods first did on the PGA Tour, Johnson sets the standard for driver fitness in NASCAR. In the past 18 months, he's upped his training. Stories abound about how Johnson drove in an all-star race on a Saturday night last February, ran in the Daytona Beach half-marathon in the morning, and then drove in Daytona 500 qualifying later the same day (and won the race a week later, by the way).

He also won his age group while posting a time of 2 hours, 17 minutes in an Olympic-distance triathlon in Palm Springs last year. The time surprised him so much, he actually asked a race official to repeat it then said, "No way." He compared his pride at finishing 13 minutes below his goal to "winning a Cup race."

It should almost go without mentioning that Johnson -- like every race car driver -- also has to have buckets of guts to do what he does.

Even with all the safety advances the sport has made, race car driving is still a death sport. Jim Murray's old line about the start of the Indy 500 -- "Gentlemen, start your coffins" -- became famous for a reason.

Earnhardt's ability to extend his record championship total ended when he lost his life in 2001 at Daytona.

Though Johnson was all but assured his sixth championship when he arrived at Homestead last weekend with a 28-point lead, his path to his latest title wasn't without incident. The previous week at Phoenix, he had a close call that a lesser driver might not have escaped.

Nudged by Carl Edwards heading into a turn on Lap 164, Johnson successfully kept his car from skidding into the outside wall.

"The one with the 99 [Edwards], at two different points as I saved it, the car pointed back at the fence, and I thought I was going to hit it," Johnson said, but "I got it gathered up and got back going."

Edwards, who saw Johnson's save through his windshield, was impressed.

"Anybody that says it's all his car and it's not his driving … they should see what I saw. He did a good job saving that," Edwards told his spotter after the incident.

That's racing. And it's just another reason Johnson races better than any NASCAR driver ever has.

Just listen to his peers.

The other day, Denny Hamlin sounded like Patrick Ewing or Karl Malone talking about being NBA contemporaries of Jordan when he said of Johnson, "Unfortunately, we're racing during the Jimmie Johnson era. We're just unlucky in that sense. Racing with him, I think he's the best that there ever was. He's racing against competition that is tougher than this sport's ever seen."

One might argue that comparing Jimmie Johnson to Tiger or Lance or Wayne Gretzky, or comparing Hendrick Motorsports to the Celtics or UCLA dynasties, is apples to oranges. But the common ground they share is they all dominated their era.

That's the criteria that puts Johnson in the same pantheon as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Michael Schumacher, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Tom Brady and any other dominant world-class athlete you can name from the past 25 years.

As last Sunday's pole-sitter Matt Kenseth said: "Jimmie and that team are obviously unbelievable. Never seen anything like this in the sport and probably will never see anything like it again…They just seem to be able to raise the bar. It's amazing, as tight as the rules are, multicar teams, information sharing, and all that stuff. It's amazing they can figure out how to do that year after year."

Then Kenseth smiled and added, "Maybe he'll retire now."

Johnson's answer, for once, was not so fast.

"I'm just trying to say the right things and keep my mind in the right space," he explained when pressed again for where he thinks he rates in professional sports. "I haven't let a lot in, and it's led to more success. It's kept my work ethic intact and it's kept me honest and humble. I like that about myself.

"I don't know if I want to open my mind up and let it in [and consider] where I might stand in the sports world. It's not time for that, in my eyes."

So far, he's accomplishing even that wish as well as anyone ever has.