Three down and more to go? Johnson, 48 team, might just be getting started

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Turns out three in a row isn't really the milestone Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus were looking for. It's just a step in the right direction.

"To get four championships in a row, you have to get three," crew chief Knaus said, maybe 10 minutes into their media conference Sunday night after the 48 team won its third straight Sprint Cup championship.

"It's not that we're chasing a number," Johnson said. "It's just what we're capable of …"

So they tied Cale Yarborough's record of 30 years ago and moved on.

"Yeah, we want four -- why not?" Knaus said. "We think with the team that we've got … we can definitely go and bid for four championships in a row. Why wouldn't we?"

Already, clearly they're the preseason favorites to win the 2009 Sprint Cup and become the only four-peat champions in NASCAR history.

Jeff Gordon already knew the mindset of his protégé and teammate Friday, two days before Johnson clinched the three-peat in the season-ending Ford 400.

Four in a row is "probably the mark they're really looking for," said Gordon, who co-owns Johnson's team with Rick Hendrick. "One person did three in a row, so to put yourself in your own category, and stand out, is to go for four in a row."

Johnson and Knaus have never made any bones about wanting to be in their own category. If they win their fourth, they'll surely want their fifth … and so on …

They mean to ride wide open beyond the list of three-peat teams in all of sports, up among the longest strings of championships: say, the five straight World Series won by the New York Yankees of 1949-53, the eight straight NBA championships by the Boston Celtics of 1959-66 and the five straight Stanley Cups by the Montreal Canadiens of 1956-60.

"As long as they can keep harmony," said television commentator Darrell Waltrip, himself a three-time NASCAR champion, "they could go on forever."

Top NASCAR teams usually falter only when they break up like a rock band -- say, the driver leaves for more money, or the crew chief starts his own team.

Hendrick isn't worried about the No. 48 group.

"I know how bad both of these guys want it," Hendrick said. "I know what they go through when I watch them in comparison to other drivers and crew chiefs.

"I've never seen anyone, in my 25 years [as a team owner], willing to sacrifice any more -- or as much -- as they are, just because they want it so bad."

This is Hendrick's eighth Cup championship as an owner, so he's a fairly good authority on how teams behave after winning them.

"Sometimes when guys get it one time, or twice, they maybe back off a little bit," Hendrick said. "They've gotten there."

But each championship "just makes these guys even hungrier," he continued. "So with the chemistry between them, and the respect they have, I don't see" -- and here he tried not to jinx it -- "I hope there's nothing in the future that would separate them."

The demeanors of Johnson and Knaus haven't really changed since Johnson's rookie season, 2002, when they contended for the championship out of the box.

Now, even with three titles won, they both behave like a couple of hungry upstarts, obsessed with proving themselves.

"I don't think you ever quit learning how to do a better job as a driver or a crew member," Johnson said. "You just can't stop."

Even Sunday night, Johnson could look into the eyes of his crew members and see that "they're ready to go racing. They want to do it again."

They could start next Sunday, but the workaholic Knaus and his band have to take a breath, Johnson maintained.

"From a driver's standpoint, I could go race again next week and start the season and go for four. From their standpoint, these guys need a break … they need some time off to recharge."

From a driver's standpoint, I could go race again next week and start the season and go for four.

-- Jimmie Johnson

Some historians wonder if a Yarborough four-peat was thrown off track in 1979 by his notorious last-lap Daytona 500 wreck with Donnie Allison, as they dueled for the win, and then his fight with Donnie and brother Bobby Allison.

Yarborough maintains that had nothing to do with it. He'd set a record, and after that, "I wanted to spend more time with my family."

So his intensity eased.

Johnson and wife, Chandra, don't yet have children. And besides, "I think in today's world there's more time to have a family life than what Cale experienced," Johnson said earlier this fall about his childhood racing hero.

With private jets, helicopters and luxury motor coaches, drivers can keep their families with them on the move -- "Jeff has proven it," Johnson said of his mentor Gordon, whose wife and toddler daughter are with him virtually every weekend.

So Johnson and Knaus head into '09 in clean air, as racers say of running up front, where there is no turbulence.

They're the best and most battle-seasoned team in NASCAR.

Yet here go the hungry upstarts again.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.