NASCAR & Auto Racing

Jimmie Johnson motivated by performance as he nears racing immortality

Jimmie Johnson during NASCAR on Sept. 16 at Kansas Speedway
Jimmie Johnson during NASCAR on Sept. 16 at Kansas Speedway JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

This was supposed to be a story about Jimmie Johnson’s quest for history.

He’s on the cusp auto-racing immortality.

Johnson’s resume already is Hall of Fame-caliber. He ranks eighth all-time in Sprint Cup history with 74 career victories.

When Jeff Gordon retires after the season, he’ll be the active leader when it comes to claiming checkered flags.

Johnson’s five straight Sprint Cup titles between 2006-2010 are a record for consecutive championships and he also claimed the Cup crown in 2013, but seven is the magical number in NASCAR.

Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt each won seven Sprint Cup titles. Both are revered and etched on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore.

If Johnson can add a seventh championship, he’d be deserving of a place alongside those legends, if he doesn’t already.

That’s not, however, what motivates him.

“What motivates me at night when I’m in bed trying to sleep or where my driving comes from, it isn’t tied with Dale or Richard Petty,” Johnson said. “It’s just winning a championship. I’m not motivated by the number. Absolutely, there’s so much excitement that comes with it, but that’s not what motivates me. It’s about performing.”

That doesn’t mean a seventh title and what it would mean never crosses his mind.

“From a cool factor, absolutely,” he said. “That meter’s pegged on the cool side. It would be cool. … Absolutely, seven would be more special. … It would be quite an accomplishment. There’s nothing wrong with the six that I have, but I would like to have one more.”

The quest for a seventh title was put on hold when Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet didn’t perform well enough in the Challenger Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup and were eliminated from contention.

Johnson — who boasts an astounding 310 top-10 finishes in 501 career Sprint Cup starts, a ridiculous 61.9-percent clip — is a polarizing figure for many NASCAR fans.

Some resent his success. Others despise the perception he’s robotic and unengaging.

It’s a reputation Johnson acknowledges, but he also was thrust into a pressure-cooker after being handpicked by Gordon to join Hendrick Motorsports in 2002.

“Not that I’m asking for any sympathy by any means, but the situation that I was put into wasn’t the easiest,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but when you come in and you are handpicked by the best in the sport, driving for the best team, there’s just stuff that comes with that.”

Johnson — who won the spring race at Kansas Speedway, giving him a record three wins at the track along with Gordon — felt immense pressure to be a spokesman for the team’s sponsors and be a leader for the team, but he also felt pulled in multiple directions as far as the image he should project.

“For a while, maybe I was concerned about that and was frustrated that people couldn’t see who I am or what I am, things like that,” Johnson said. “Eventually, I was just like, the hell with it. I can’t make everybody happy. I just got to live my life and do my thing.”

It’s allowed Johnson to gain greater stature in the garage, not only for his skills behind the wheel, but also as a rallying and unifying force.

“I have become more comfortable in my own shoes,” Johnson said. “I’ve had to mature in the spotlight of sorts, and that’s not easy for anybody to do. I can also say that, within the sport, I feel much more comfortable, but it took probably two or three championships before I felt like I had a voice in the sport and had the confidence to approach (NASCAR) about things or say things in a media. … I feel like I've matured and grown into that role far better.”

Johnson, who has finished outside the top 10 only three times in 18 career starts at Kansas Speedway, turned 40 last month.

“I can’t stop it,” he said. “I’ve been trying to ignore it.”

It’s hard to ignore Johnson’s legacy and only natural to wonder how much longer he’ll race.

Gordon is stepping away on a full-time basis after the season and Tony Stewart announced last month that 2016 would be his last season on the Sprint Cup circuit.

When Johnson signed a two-year extension Sept. 14 with Hendrick and Lowe’s, it raised a few eyebrows, but he’s adamant that he isn’t contemplating retirement — at least not yet.

“I know there’s been a bit of conversation about only a two-year extension,” Johnson said. “People have been speculating about what that might mean. Really, there’s nothing to it. The sponsor usually dictates the term, and that’s really the situation and where it’s at. … I don’t think I have 10 more years, but I certainly have more than two more years.”

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer