Updated: February 28, 2014, 1:42 PM ET

From Five-Time To Six-Time

Sprint Cup: Countdown to No. 7 has begun

By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

Jimmie Johnson spent the past three years answering questions about his quest for a six-pack -- a six-pack of NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, that is.

On a weekend when quarterback-turned-Fox Sports pundit Donovan McNabb turned the conversation to Johnson's six-pack abdominal muscles and peerless level of fitness compared to his NASCAR rivals, JJ didn't get distracted. That mental strength allowed him and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team to overcome another sterling effort from Matt Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing to emerge with the sixth Cup title in the past eight years for the pairing of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

The odds were stacked against Kenseth, coming in facing a 28-point deficit to Johnson. He did almost everything he could, qualifying on the pole position for the Ford EcoBoost 400 and leading a race-high 144 of 267 laps on the way to second place.

Jimmie Johnson
Robert Duyos/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson enjoys a family hug after winning his sixth Sprint Cup title in eight years Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But Knaus and Johnson countered every move, bringing Johnson home in a safe ninth place to earn that sixth crown and kick off the conversation about how long it will take him to join NASCAR titans Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven.

First things first, though. After withholding comment for three days about McNabb's polarizing "race drivers aren't athletes" remarks, Johnson responded.

"Yes, I am an athlete, and so is every other driver in one of these race cars," he told reporters.

In a subsequent news conference, he revealed he had gotten support from many other sporting figures, including NBA legend Michael Jordan.

"He's given me a hard time that I only won five," Johnson said. "I can't wait to send him a text and say, 'Hey, buddy, I've caught up!'"

Now the attention turns to how long it will take Johnson to catch up with the benchmark of seven NASCAR Cup series championships held by Earnhardt and Petty. At age 38, Johnson is relatively young by NASCAR standards. His best years may still be ahead of him.

Petty, who is NASCAR's leader in race wins with 200, said at Homestead that it is impossible and unfair to compare drivers from different eras. The reality is that Johnson is undisputedly the best in NASCAR's current Chase era, and even his competitors acknowledge that.

"Unfortunately, we're racing during the Jimmie Johnson era," remarked Sunday's race winner, Denny Hamlin. "We're just unlucky in that sense. Being out there and racing with him, I can say that I think he's the best that there ever was. He's racing against competition that is tougher than this sport's ever seen."

After three years of wearing out the hashtag "#sixpack" in his Twitter feed, Johnson and his fans will have to come up with a clever way to set up his run for No. 7.

But don't make it "#luckyseven," because there was little luck involved in Johnson's latest championship or any of the five that preceded it.

The California native simply works harder than his rivals at being the best, in and out of the car.

"I don't think Jimmie can train any harder and work any harder as an athlete to be in shape, or study what the car does, what the car needs," observed team owner Rick Hendrick. "And Chad's the same way. I don't know how they can work any harder. They don't leave any detail undone.

"I've been doing this for 30 years now, and the attention to detail that Chad goes through preparing for a race elevates the whole company," Hendrick added. "Jimmie elevates all the talent in our organization."

Given his work ethic and attention to detail, it's unlikely that Johnson will pause too long to reflect on his most recent accomplishment. For the next couple of weeks, he'll be swamped by media and public-relations responsibilities, starting on Tuesday by being the first athlete -- that's right, athlete -- to co-host ESPN's "SportsCenter."

Nor will he get bogged down trying to assess his place in NASCAR history. That can wait until after he hangs up his helmet for good.

"I want to unplug, enjoy the sixth, let it soak in," Johnson said. "We'll get to Daytona for testing soon enough. I guess by then it's probably appropriate to ask the question."

Jimmie Johnson Among The Best Ever


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