Would record 8th NASCAR title make Jimmie Johnson the GOAT? Johnson weighs in

NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson starts the quest for a record-setting eighth Cup series title as the playoffs open Sunday at Chicagoland.
NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson starts the quest for a record-setting eighth Cup series title as the playoffs open Sunday at Chicagoland. AP

Jimmie Johnson sat in the center of a cluster of reporters and waited for the question that has followed him all year.

Finally it came. Jimmie, are you aware that if you win the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series championship this year that it will be your eighth title, more than any other driver in history? The circle of reporters at Wednesday’s NASCAR media day chuckled, and Johnson couldn’t help but do the same.

“I heard something about that,” he said through a grin.

He then dove into a lengthy answer, touching on momentum and unpredictability and a whole host of other topics that did not truly answer the question. Then the cluster moved on, eager to discuss more timely matters, such as this weekend’s playoff-opening race in Chicago.

But that answer at the media gathering isn’t sufficient. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be.

Earlier this week, Johnson gave the Observer a sneak peak at his new Charlotte taco shop, Southbound. The conversation in a back corner booth was mostly about the menu – and how a NASCAR driver gets into the restaurant business at all.

Eventually the conversation drifted to racing, and of course that led to the same lingering question.

Does Johnson ever think about winning an eighth Cup series title, and being considered the Greatest Of All Time?

This time, he answered straight up – “I do.”

Jimmie Johnson won his record-tying seventh NASCAR championship in 2016, and if he wins this year, he’ll have more titles than any driver in history. Joe Cavaretta TNS

I tell him I appreciate the honesty, which sparks something else.

“That was never my goal though,” he said. “I just wanted to race. Sure, I’d love to accomplish these things, but I spend more time worrying about doing a good job than I do about what happens if I do a good job.

“I mean, I literally wanted to win a race. That was my goal. To have it turn into what it has has blown my mind.”

What it’s turned into is the one of the greatest racing careers ever, with a chance to get even better. Johnson’s seven championships tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most ever. The only difference is that Johnson’s still racing, so he has a chance to surpass them.

It makes sense to think he will, too. Johnson won his first championship back in 2006 ... and then he won four more in a row after that. His five straight titles are the most consecutively in history, and that in itself elevated him to among the sport’s elite.

Then he won again in 2013, after a two-year hiatus.

This time last season it didn’t look like he would win the title, especially not after entering the playoffs in 11th place. But Johnson’s M.O. has always been postseason surges, and he used one in 2016 en route to his record-tying seventh title.

That brings us to the present, with Johnson fifth in the standings and capable of mounting that record run. He has already won three races this year, so expecting him to win once or twice this postseason isn’t unreasonable, especially not with Johnson’s postseason pedigree.

Back in the restaurant, Johnson got up to leave. I wished him good luck and safe travels. Then I got in one last parting question.

Do you really think you can get eight?

“Fall is here,” Johnson said before walking away. “Fall is my time to get hot.”

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks