Homestead, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jimmie Johnson (left) celebrates with crew chief Chad Knaus after winning his sixth NASCAR championship following the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
HOMESTEAD, Fla. - After winning his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship on Sunday, Jimmie Johnson is one short of the record held by Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.
Johnson will get his seventh within the next few years, and maybe an eighth or a ninth, too.
In the meantime, this much has become clear: Johnson is the greatest NASCAR driver who ever lived.
That's hard for some NASCAR fans to accept because of the circumstances surrounding Johnson's championships. He drives for NASCAR's best team and is aligned with the best crew chief - mastermind Chad Knaus.
There were plenty of people - including this writer - who found it easy to use those factors against Johnson during his first run of championships. He made five in a row look oh-so-easy from 2006-10, and it could be imagined he was somehow a product of the No. 48 team's system.
Plus, the robotic way he went about his dominance was anything but entertaining. That his run of titles coincided with a sharp decline in TV ratings might not have been a coincidence, either.
But when the titles stopped coming after 2010, Johnson's performance hardly dropped off. In 2011, the worst season of his career, he still won two races and finished sixth in the points standings. And last year, he was in title contention again until the final laps.
That showed just how tough it is to win a championship in NASCAR - even if Johnson doesn't make it seem that way.
This season, Johnson looked as dominant as ever and capped off one of his best campaigns - he had six wins and 23 top-10 finishes entering Homestead - with another championship. And don't give the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff format the credit for this title - he would have won by an even larger margin if not for the points reset before the 10-race playoff run.
Johnson simply wins - both races and championships - and he does it better than anyone in history.
"I can tell you this: I've worked with a lot of fantastic race car drivers and I've seen a lot of drivers come and go in our sport," Knaus said. "Jimmie is, for me and for our time, the best driver to ever sit in a race car."
But here's the catch: Knaus said he doesn't know if Johnson could have beaten the other drivers in the "best ever" conversation - Petty, Earnhardt and David Pearson - straight up in their eras. No one does.
"It's like taking somebody from the Olympics in the year 1900 and comparing them to somebody in the year 2000," Petty said. "Everything has transferred so much. Everybody is in better shape. They'd blow that record away just because of time and records are made to be broken."
They were all greats, and it's practically impossible to compare their achievements. Petty and Pearson won often in an era when it was common to win by multiple laps and NASCAR staged multiple races per week.
And Earnhardt's seven titles and 76 career wins were stretched over a far longer span than Johnson's success has been (he's already within 10 wins of Earnhardt in 241 fewer starts). This was Johnson's sixth title in 12 seasons; Earnhardt won his seven in 22 full-time seasons in a career cut short by his death on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.
Earnhardt, who more fans remember than Petty or Pearson because he drove more recently, will have plenty of supporters who would never dream of ranking Johnson ahead of the "Intimidator."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. likely spoke for many Earnhardt fans Friday when he evaluated Johnson's place in history.
"Well, I'm biased - so (he ranks) second," Earnhardt said. But he added: "If Jimmie keeps tracking at the pace he's on, he makes a much better argument for himself."
Earnhardt said he was surprised the comparisons were only gathering steam now because "he deserves to be in the conversation as one of the greatest drivers the sport has ever seen."
Before the finale, Matt Kenseth said people should have been putting Johnson among the greats three years ago.
"Nobody has ever won five straight," he said. "Especially in this day and age with these rules and as many competitive teams and all that stuff. I said (he was one of the greatest) then and I'll say it again."
But is he the best ever?
Yes, and here's why: Johnson is easily the most dominant driver of his era - he has 30 more wins than the next-closest driver since he entered the sport - and this era just so happens to be unquestionably the toughest and most competitive in NASCAR's history.
These days, it's more difficult than ever to make it to the Cup level thanks to a huge talent pool. The margin of victory and number of cars on the lead lap don't even compare to previous generations. The cars are closer in speed than they've ever been - even closer than 10 years ago, thanks to NASCAR's ever-tightening rules.
So Johnson is the best driver in NASCAR's most competitive era. He's won six titles in the last eight seasons and been in contention for three more championships until the final race.
His businesslike approach to racing and the way he strives for perfection can make it hard for the average fan to relate to him; he doesn't make it look like he's doing anything remarkable. But Johnson doesn't have to make apologies for the qualities that make him great: His focus, his intense training regimen, his incredible work ethic.
That doesn't mean NASCAR fans need to suddenly start loving Johnson - everyone knows it can be fun to see the underdog (all the other drivers, in this case) beat the heavy favorite. But it's important to at least recognize what's happening before our very eyes: Johnson, the best there's ever been, adding to his ever-growing legacy.
Jeff Gluck, USA TODAY Sports