HAMPTON, Ga. -- Jimmie Johnson doesn't have many regrets when looking at his NASCAR career. How could he? He has enough championship rings to need a second hand, enough race victories to use the trophies as doorstops and universal respect from his competitors.
But he does have one major regret. He never raced in Sprint Cup against Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time champion who won 76 races before his death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Johnson made his first Cup start nearly eight months later, the start of an epic career that has also featured 76 victories.
Victory No. 76 for Johnson came Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway with a combination of great strategy from crew chief Chad Knaus that required the smoothest, fastest driver on the Folds of Honor 500 grid. And that was Johnson.
"I entered the sport just hoping I could win a race and keep a job for a few years, and to have 76 and tie Dale Earnhardt Sr. is something I'm very, very proud of," Johnson said. "I didn't have a chance to race against him. ... There's been a big void in my mind about not having that chance to race against him, and I was literally a handful of months away from having that opportunity.
"So to tie him today, for myself personally, it gives me a little something, it's a little bit of attachment to the great Dale Earnhardt and something I'm very proud of."
Johnson didn't grow up an Earnhardt fan and cheered more for Jeff Gordon in the 1990s, part of a sibling rivalry with brother Jarit. They would banter back and forth.
They both had their days of gloating and disappointment.
Employing the same competitiveness as both Earnhardt and Gordon, Johnson displays car control possibly better than those superstars but not necessarily the roughness of Earnhardt nor the propensity for the daring, incredible moves of Gordon. Johnson utilizes possibly the best crew chief-driver relationship in decades and the uncanny ability to flat out out-finesse his competition.
"Dad would have liked Jimmie as a person, but he certainly wouldn't have enjoyed competing against him," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "I don't think any of us really [do]. I love when we race door to door, but when he goes out there and spanks you, it's not a lot of fun.
"Knowing Dad and knowing Jimmie's character, they would have gotten along tremendously and Dad would have thought the world of him. ... How can you not like Jimmie? He's just a good guy that never stepped over the line with anything he's ever said or anything he's ever did, so I think it's awesome to praise him."
On Sunday, that crew chief-driver relationship allowed Johnson to trust that Knaus knew what he was doing when he called Johnson down pit road with 49 laps left in the scheduled distance. Coming in that early meant Johnson would have as many as 10 laps more on his tires compared to everyone else by the time the checkered flag dropped.
Johnson proved he could hold on, but a Ryan Newman blown tire brought out a late caution, creating a two-lap dash to the finish.
The Hendrick Motorspots crew performed flawlessly on the ensuing pit stop, and Johnson did as well, executing a perfect restart to keep the lead when the final caution came out for an Aric Almirola crash, earning Johnson the win in NASCAR's version of overtime.
While the short-pitting move might seem a huge gamble, it wasn't with Johnson. A guy doesn't win 76 races without knowing how to manage the tires. A fierce competitor tends to find another level when he can taste victory, especially when the driver chasing him has similar equipment, as Kevin Harvick did.
Harvick, who led a race-high 131 laps, had nothing for Johnson on the restart -- "The top didn't go, just like it doesn't every year," Harvick said -- but Johnson didn't do anything stupid and throw away the victory. He rarely does, and that's another reason he has 76 race-winning trophies.
"Jimmie is pretty awesome, isn't he?" Knaus said. "Let's be honest, he's just a heck of a race-car driver."
Fittingly, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second. As he drove to pit road, Johnson celebrated by holding three fingers out the window in honor of the elder Earnhardt and his car number. He didn't have a No. 3 flag as Jeff Gordon did when Gordon won his 76th, but just holding up three fingers says as much as any piece of cloth with a number on it.
"I told him on a couple occasions that when he tied Daddy, he'd better say something cool," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, "and he'd better tell them that it's awesome for him to tie him, because I know Jeff had the flag and all that, so that was awesome when your competitors and peers recognize your father like that.
"I knew this day was coming, but I didn't know it until we got out of the car. I'm glad if he's going to win and tie that record, I'm certainly glad that I got to run second."
Johnson didn't say anything really cool. And despite Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s wishes, that's OK. Johnson talked in Johnson style, excited but respectful.
"With the chaos at the end and the crash and wondering about overtime and how it worked these days, I kind of lost sight of [tying Earnhardt]," Johnson said. "I remembered it on my victory lap coming down, and I had to come by and throw a '3' out the window to pay my respects to the man."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. shares a race shop with Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports, and he often gushes about Johnson. Earnhardt's sister, Kelley, tweeted her congratulations.
Amazing career @JimmieJohnson! 76 wins tying my dad and you are in incredible company with wins and championships. Pretty cool to see.
- Kelley Earnhardt (@EarnhardtKelley) February 28, 2016
For Johnson, that acceptance from the Earnhardt family makes reaching the milestone that more special.
"I spoke to Junior a little bit [six months ago], and he shared with me that he really feels like his dad would have had a ton of respect for me and would have enjoyed racing against me, and we would have had a great friendship," Johnson said.
Rick Hendrick certainly couldn't have predicted Johnson would win six titles and 76 races when Johnson blurted out that he would win races while meeting with executives from sponsor Lowe's to convince them to sponsor his race car.
Hendrick knew he had a driver who either had confidence or was a good salesman. He ended up with a driver who has won at least one race for 15 consecutive years and a driver who handles himself as a pro, even if that has meant some fans view him as too polished, too respectful for someone who needs a mean streak to earn 76 wins.
"When you look at Jimmie's career and you look at how quick he's gotten to 76 and he's got six championships, I think you've got to say that he's one of the best that's ever been in the sport," Hendrick said.
"It means a lot to him and a lot to all of us. We're all big Earnhardt fans, but it's going to be interesting to see how many races and championships Jimmie and Chad can win."
It certainly is a team effort. And while some will credit the intensity and ingenuity of Knaus and wonder if Johnson would have won as many races or championships without him, the drivers know.
"I don't have a problem calling him the best of this generation even as a competitor of his and having to go out there and race against him," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "Obviously he will credit his crew chief and his team.
"That all has been real consistent throughout his career, and they do deserve some credit. But Jimmie is just a phenomenal talent."