Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

NASCAR ; Johnson the Greatest of All? He Is in the Mix

Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

NASCAR ; Johnson the Greatest of All? He Is in the Mix

Article excerpt

HOMESTEAD, Fla. - The congratulatory messages started rolling in long before Jimmie Johnson had finished his obligatory championship photos. Larry Bird. Mia Hamm. Michael Phelps. Mario Andretti. Drew Brees. The Chicago Cubs. The list of dignitaries - and the friends and neighbors who toilet-papered his North Carolina home overnight shows just how significant this latest milestone is for Johnson.

Greatest of all time? Maybe. He certainly deserves to be in the conversation.

Johnson joined Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers in NASCAR to win seven titles with a race-winning run Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His record-tying championship came in a bizarre year for Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team, and on a day that did not belong to the iconic No. 48 Chevrolet until the final lap of the race.

Hendrick Motorsports was not good this year, and never found the speed to match Joe Gibbs Racing and its fleet of Toyotas. Johnson, for most of the season, was never even mentioned as a title contender.

The organization buckled down, improved its cars and got Johnson in position to race for his seventh title.

Then he did the rest.

When Carl Edwards wrecked Sunday night to essentially lose the championship, Johnson charged through the melee and found himself suddenly leading the two remaining title contenders. On a night when he'd started last his team was found to have manipulated the body of his car after it had passed inspection and clearly wasn't as good as the other three contenders, he had somehow lucked into the lead.

He still had to earn the win, though, and did it with the restart of his life to hold off Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. He led one lap and it was the one that mattered.

"He is probably the most underrated champion in this sport, said his crew chief, Chad Knaus. "He is a fantastic, fantastic individual, an amazing race car driver. Most people in the situation we were in just in would crumble. He didn't even waver. He knew what he needed to do. He knew what the demands were on him at that point in time, and he made it happen.

"We've got a great team. We've got a great owner. …

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