Sports

Jimmie Johnson driven to win four Chase titles

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Four in a row. The New York Yankees have done it. The Montreal Canadiens have done it. So have the Boston Celtics. Dynasties all.

And now it may be time for a NASCAR dynasty. It's Jimmie Johnson's time.

Johnson will roar into Kansas Speedway for today's Price Chopper 400 - the third leg of the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup - 10 points behind leader Mark Martin, and he is putting himself in prime position to win an unprecedented four consecutive Sprint Cup championships.

A year ago, Johnson won at Kansas Speedway, propelling him to his third title in a row, joining Cale Yarborough as the only Sprint Cup drivers to do so. Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt won four titles in five years; and Jeff Gordon won three championships in four years.

But four in a row? In this advanced era, a fourth consecutive championship would put Johnson in the conversation as one of the greatest drivers of all time.

"If Jimmie Johnson wins this fourth championship, you have to consider him as one of the top five drivers of all time in this sport," said Dale Jarrett, the 1999 Sprint Cup champion and now an analyst for ABC/ESPN. "Does that make him the greatest driver of all time? I think people aren't going to go that far because of the seven championships that Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt have, and the victories they have.

"I'm not even sure it's going to take this fourth championship in a row, but if he does win it, then there is no doubt in my mind he has to be one of the top five. He's been in the top five every year that he's raced (in the Cup). Nobody else ever did that."

Indeed, the most impressive part about Johnson's eight-year career is he could easily be gunning for his sixth championship in seven years. Johnson finished second in 2003 and a year later, he lost the championship in the final race of the year to Kurt Busch by eight points.

"He never seems to get rattled," said Brian Vickers, in his first Chase. "Rarely does he make mistakes. No matter how bad things get, they always seem to be there at the end of the race. If he was to win four in a row ... people don't realize sometimes how big of a feat that is in the competitiveness of the sport."

Martin, who won the opening race of this season's Chase at New Hampshire and finished second to Johnson last week at Dover, gained a newfound respect for Johnson after joining him as a teammate with Hendrick Motorsports.

"I think it's a very overlooked fact about Jimmie Johnson that he works harder at it than anybody in the garage," Martin said. "I don't think people see that. I sure didn't until I got over there."

According to Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, it's all in the details. Even with three trophies in the case, Johnson refuses to become complacent.

"There are a lot of people that when they get to the top ... football players, baseball players, racers for that matter ... they're like, 'Oh, I made it. I've got a big house, a cool plane, man, let's party on Monday,'" Knaus said.

"Jimmie does the opposite. He wakes up on Monday morning, 8 o'clock. Gets on the treadmill. Goes to work. Watches what he eats and pays attention to details. If I need to talk to him on the telephone, he answers the call. He doesn't call me back two days later. It's a commitment to his lifestyle. It's a part of his life.

"If you want to win races in this industry in today's day and age, you have to give that type of commitment. If you don't, you're not going to win."

Each championship holds a special significance to Johnson.

"In 2006, it was getting the monkey off our back because we had been so close," he said. "We opened the Chase with a crash at Loudon, fought back into contention, had our problem at Talladega and still came back and won.

"Then was the split season in 2007 (with introduction of the Car of Tomorrow). We were proud on how we stayed on top of technology for both cars, not only mainlining the old car, but developing the Car of Tomorrow and making it competitive and a very tough battle with Jeff (Gordon). He put up one heck of a fight.

"We got off to a very slow start in 2008 and had to fight back. We made a run during the chase and got things going. They've all been different, but at the end of the day, it's been about the people and team working together and fighting through issues."

Johnson, 34, admits having already won three championships alleviates some of the pressure other may be experiencing.

"I'd be lying if I said it didn't," Johnson said. "Winning that first championship was such a milestone and so important to me. But I've got that hunger inside of me and that desire to win championships and races, and that desire continues to grow, year after year, race after race for a lot of reasons, and especially this year ... We have a chance at four in a row. The drive and determination is more than it's ever been."

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