HOMESTEAD, Fla. — There are longtime NASCAR fans who have bristled when Jimmie Johnson’s name is mentioned in the same breath as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.
There’s no disputing Johnson’s legendary status now. Johnson already was the best driver in NASCAR history based on his success in the sport’s most competitive era, and now he has a record-tying seventh championship to prove it.
Johnson won Cup title No. 7 on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, putting himself permanently on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore. He undoubtedly is an all-time great, and any driver in the future would be hard-pressed to match the success of the Petty-Earnhardt-Johnson trio.
And at 41, Johnson might not be done. Paired with Chad Knaus – himself now just one shy of the championship record for crew chiefs of eight, held by Dale Inman – there could be more titles to come.
But whether this is the last one or not, it certainly will be remembered for years. Critics tried to dismiss Johnson’s five straight titles from 2006-10 as one incredible hot streak, but winning another championship three years later put a dent in that argument.
Now, another Cup trophy three years after that – and in a completely different playoff format -- further shows his consistent excellence.
Fans have seemingly started to warm to the idea of Johnson as an icon in the sport. He started to receive more cheers than boos this year, and 58% of fans in an informal Twitter poll before the finale told USA TODAY Sports they were rooting for No. 7.
The majority got what it wanted, and the others have no choice but to respect the achievement.
Earnhardt tied Petty with his seventh title in 1994, so any fan of legal drinking age and younger wasn’t alive to see it. But they – along with all of us – now have witnessed history.