Scott Fowler

NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson knows what Earnhardt, Petty fans think of him, and doesn’t care

Jimmie Johnson is seeking his seventh NASCAR Cup series title, and he says he knows exactly what that would mean for his legacy.
Jimmie Johnson is seeking his seventh NASCAR Cup series title, and he says he knows exactly what that would mean for his legacy. AP

Secure in both his life and his on-track legacy, Jimmie Johnson knows that many fans of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt don’t want him to tie those two legends’ records by winning a seventh NASCAR title this month.

But you know what?

I think he’s going to.

Johnson has already locked down the first of the “final four” spots for the Homestead season finale in Florida on Nov. 20 with his victory in Martinsville on Sunday. And while Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, likes to claim that the No. 48 Chevrolet team is not concerned with Johnson getting to No. 7, Johnson has no problem saying that he is.

“I’m aware of it and what it would mean,” Johnson told a small group of us reporters on Wednesday. “And damn, I want to do it. The desire to accomplish it is very intense and very real. ... I think seven would give me super long legs for my legacy.”

To that end, Johnson has been wearing a racing helmet that reads “Chasing 7,” with pictures of both Petty and Earnhardt emblazoned upon it.

Said Johnson: “The fact that I have Dale and Richard’s faces on my helmet is, one, respect to them, and two, just to put a target on something. That’s the goal.”

Six titles in eight years

The 2016 NBA Finals went to a Game 7. The World Series did, too, and then produced a game of remarkable drama Wednesday night. The most recent men’s college basketball ended on a walk-off final shot that was another ending for the ages (sorry, UNC fans).

So what does Homestead have in store for us? If it’s anything like those, we’ve got a last-lap thriller on the way.

Johnson, 41, will be a prime candidate to win it – again. He won all six of his Cup championships in an eight-year span from 2006-13. He has not won a title since the latest version of the Chase playoff race was unveiled in early 2014. Did he prefer the previous formats?

“Hell, yeah,” Johnson said.

Johnson is always close, though. There is really no way to “Jimmie-proof” the Cup series, just like you can’t “LeBron-proof” the NBA. Johnson is simply too good – smooth, consistent, unflappable. Johnson also knows that a number of people will root against him at Homestead, not wanting him to equal the records of “The King” and “The Intimidator.” It doesn’t faze him – he knows Earnhardt also got booed a lot when he was chasing his own seventh championship.

Said Johnson: “I would imagine the older demographic is probably rooting against me, if I was to guess. ... And I think the younger fans in general would be more in favor of me tying them.”

‘The Burger King guy’

Even if he were to win No. 7 this year and No. 8 in 2017, however, Johnson knows that some race fans will never consider him as good as Petty and Earnhardt.

“I see that every time I open my (Twitter) feed,” Johnson said.

Speaking of Twitter, to me Johnson is a great example of how to use it. Often thought of as too corporate and too robotic in his early days, Johnson (and a number of his driving peers) grasped early on the possibilities of social media. Johnson has used it time and again to show his sense of humor and to post self-deprecating pictures, including one on Monday night when he dressed as a prince at the behest of his two young daughters, who were princesses.

He posted a picture of the family in costume, then went to a block party in his Charlotte neighborhood. “One of the adults said, ‘Cool, you’re the Burger King guy,’” Johnson said.

The same crown on Johnson’s head made rival driver Denny Hamlin crack on Twitter: “Yea I knew you wore a damn crown to bed.”

That, in turn, prompted Johnson to find and post a picture of Hamlin dressed as a Dalmatian with the caption: “Yea I knew you wore damn floppy ears to bed.”

Johnson has won at least four Cup races every year since 2012. He basically has a hall pass for the next two races – in Texas and Arizona – as his crew tries to work ahead on its Homestead setup and waits to see who the other three finalists will be.

No matter who the other three are, though, I think we’re about to see another Johnson championship.

“Winning seven?” Johnson said. “It would be insane.”

Not really, though. When you think about it, it doesn’t sound crazy at all.