HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson has a sixth NASCAR championship in hand and two legends within reach.
Johnson staked his claim as one of the most dominant competitors Sunday by winning his sixth Sprint Cup title in eight years.
He needs one more championship — he’s sure to be the early favorite in 2014 — to tie the NASCAR record held by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt. Johnson barely got to complete his celebratory burnouts before the debate began: Where does he rank among NASCAR greats?
This much is certain: At 38 years and 61 days old, Johnson is the youngest driver to win six NASCAR championships. Petty was 38 years and 144 days old when he won No. 6 in 1975. Earnhardt was 42 when he won his sixth in 1993.
“We’ll see if I can get seven,” Johnson said. “Let’s wait until I hang up the helmet until we really start thinking about this.”
That’s not really how it works, so here are a few more worthy comparisons for Johnson’s remarkable run.
Tennis star Roger Federer won 16 Grand Slam titles from 2003-10. American swimmer Michael Phelps won 18 gold medals over three Olympics, including eight golds in eight events in Beijing in 2008. Professional golfer Tiger Woods won seven majors from 1999-2002, including four straight in 2000 and 2001. And race-car driver Michael Schumacher won five consecutive Formula 1 championships from 2000-04, winning 56 percent of his races in that span.
The only other organizations to pull off six titles in eight years:
The New York Yankees did it twice, winning six of eight World Series titles between 1936 and 1943 and six of seven between 1947 and 1953.
The Montreal Canadiens hoisted the Stanley Cup six times in eight seasons between 1953 and 1960.
The Boston Celtics won eight consecutive NBA championships between 1959 and 1966.
UCLA won seven consecutive NCAA championships between 1967 and 1973.
The Chicago Bulls won six of eight NBA titles between 1991 and 1998.
And now Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team, led by Johnson and relentless crew chief Chad Knaus.
“Every one of them is special,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “It makes you hungry to continue to try to win more. ... They got this championship mentality.
“We’ll just keep digging and see if we can come back and be competitive. (If) luck will be on our side next year, we’ll be able to win another one.”
Aside from Johnson’s on-track dominance, here are five things to know about NASCAR’s 2013 season:
KENSETH CLOSE: Matt Kenseth’s first season at Joe Gibbs Racing was his best in seven years, a title-contending run that fell 19 points short of a championship. The 2003 Sprint Cup champion finished with a career-best seven victories this season and led the majority of the 10-race Chase. Maybe it’s his experience. Maybe it’s his comfort level in the redesigned cars. Or maybe it’s the move from Roush Fenway Racing to Gibbs. “I don’t know if I feel like I’m the best driver I’ve ever been in my career, but I really don’t feel like I’ve deteriorated,” Kenseth said. “It’s probably the best I’ve felt physically and mentally and emotionally in as many years as I can remember. It’s probably as confident as I’ve ever felt.”
SEAT SHUFFLE: NASCAR’s annual seat shuffle has more moves than usual. Kevin Harvick, who finished third in points, is leaving Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas Racing. He’ll be joined there by Kurt Busch, who is leaving Furniture Row Racing after one season. With Ryan Newman out at SHR, he’s moving to RCR. Martin Truex Jr. is moving from Michael Waltrip Racing to Furniture Row. Confused yet? Well, Jeff Burton also is done at Richard Childress, and although nothing has been officially announced, he appears headed to MWR for a part-time ride. Then there’s Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte and Juan Pablo Montoya — all of whom might be done behind a NASCAR wheel. Martin is stepping away. Labonte’s future is uncertain. And Montoya is returning to IndyCar, where he will drive for legendary owner Roger Penske.
KEY INJURIES: Between Tony Stewart’s broken leg and Denny Hamlin’s broken vertebra, the season had two significant injuries. But those were just a glimpse of what happened across auto racing. Former NASCAR driver Jason Leffler, a two-time winner in the Nationwide Series, died in June after crashing in a sprint car event. Justin Wilson fractured his pelvis and bruised a lung in the IndyCar finale, and four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti abruptly retired Thursday because of injuries sustained in a crash in Houston early last month. Franchitti fractured his spine, broke his right ankle and suffered a concussion. “The one other thing we’ve learned again and are reminded of in 2013 is that it’s a dangerous sport,” NASCAR President Mike Helton said Friday. “Our drivers are human.”
CONFLICT, CHAOS & CHANGE: Those bickering disputes between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart and Logano were minor compared to what happened during and after the Richmond race. It might go down as the most memorable moment of 2013. Clint Bowyer intentionally spun and triggered the biggest credibility crisis in NASCAR history. Bowyer was trying to help a teammate earn a valuable spot in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, but the situation snowballed and led to a full-blown scandal. When the dust settled, chairman Brian France gathered all the competitors and tersely ordered them to give 100 percent at all times going forward.