Jimmie Johnson captured his ninth win at Martinsville Speedway Sunday, securing his spot in the final Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20. It marks his 79th career victory, but more importantly, the opportunity to race for a seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
If successful, Johnson would join the elite company of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with a record seven titles. Petty earned his seventh title in 1979 while Earnhardt tied that record in 1994. After 22 years, no one has come close, until now.
It hasn’t been easy. After beginning the season with two wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway, Johnson’s year seemed to unravel. During the next 17 races, he only had four top-five finishes culminating with a 40th place at Watkins Glen. But, with a seventh-place result at Bristol Motor Speedway in August, Johnson began to get his season back on track, scoring two more victories at Charlotte and Martinsville, advancing through the championship rounds.
Johnson admitted that he has “been trying to ignore this conversation about seven (championships) but now I can’t! We’re locked in. I’m just honored to be in this position.”
And although he says it’s “inevitable” that the prospect of a title will be on his mind, his focus will be on the next two races of the Round of 8.
“Obviously we want to win more races. If we can have success at Texas, that will only put us in Miami with more confidence and more speed in our car. That’s a mile-and-a-half. It will be nice to go into Phoenix not having to worry about much – really the next two. It puts us in a good position.”
His goal is to “try to put as much pressure as we can on ourselves because we know come Homestead that pressure is going to be pretty intense.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick acknowledged that there are factors that are beyond their control but his confidence in Johnson is unshakable.
“It’s so hard,” he said. “This deal is so hard, this new program. You see guys like Martin Truex that run so good, break an engine at Talladega. It’s a heartbreaker. When you get into the playoffs in baseball, the ball doesn’t go flat, you don’t get a bat that comes apart.
“There’s a lot of things out of your control that you just can’t do anything about. But I think this is an excellent shot for us, for Jimmie, because I think he’s got that stride. He showed it today when he was on the outside of Denny (Hamlin). He just didn’t give it up.
“He knows he’s got a tremendous feel. He did at Charlotte. If I’ve got to race for the win at a track like that, then I’d put my money on him. So I think all the components, engine shop, chassis shop, aero, everything is in a good place. Then with Jimmie, when all the chips are down, it’s for the seventh championship, I think he’s going to ratchet it up a notch.”
It’s a view that is shared by Johnson’s mentor, Jeff Gordon.
“When things are on the line and things matter most, Jimmie and that team know how to step it up to another level,” Gordon explained. “They showed that today. He’ll be showing that again in Homestead. I was back there in sixth or seventh place just watching him go after the No. 11 car (Denny Hamlin). That was just phenomenal driving and racing. Then he just drove away.
“Well seven is a number to a lot of people, but to me, he is already one of the all-time great. That number might just solidify that in the history books and maybe for some others. Maybe it might be special to him personally.”
Although Johnson has put himself in the best possible position, he has no intention of becoming complacent.
“The work is far from over. There’s one race; that’s winner-take-all.”