Only at the Daytona 500 could Jimmie Johnson’s drive for a seventh championship slip under the radar.
But that’s fine with him. His feelings are not hurt.
“I think a lot of people are tired of hearing my name,” he said. “It’s not bad to have the attention go somewhere else.”
Right now, as NASCAR prepares to open its season Sunday, the attention is on rookie Austin Dillon, who has put the No. 3 on the pole, and Tony Stewart, who is returning to competition after breaking his leg last year, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has been second in NASCAR’s biggest race three of the past four years.
Not to mention Danica Patrick, last year’s pole-sitter, who Richard Petty said can’t win a Sprint Cup race.
And Denny Hamlin, victim of a broken back last year, who won last weekend’s exhibition race.
And so on. And so on.
“I hope to be back in everyone’s mindset come Sunday evening, in being the winner of the Daytona 500,” Johnson said. “From the No. 3 car standpoint, that’s the perk of winning the pole; you get to sit on it for a week, basically, and all the headlines lead off with you as the pole-sitter. I’m sure Danica would rather not be in the headlines at all, with what’s transpired there.
“But we’re under the radar for now, I guess. But [I] certainly hope to change that come race time.”
Come the end of the year, it might be time to start talking about Johnson’s shot at seven championships, which would tie Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most all time at NASCAR’s highest level.
Johnson won his sixth title in eight seasons in November, peeling away from his competition with four consecutive top-10s to end the year, including a win at Texas Motor Speedway.
“I got into the off-season and relaxed and let go of racing, and it was really nice to get into January and not have racing on the brain at all,” he said. “So I haven’t put a lot of thought into it. It’s a huge opportunity that we have, obviously, and I feel like we will be able to get a look or two at it as this year goes on, and the next years go on. It would be awfully cool to get it done.
“But it’s been out of my mind for a couple of months.”
Johnson might be under the radar of fans and media, but the effect of a seventh championship doesn’t go unnoticed in the garage.
“He’s won six championships in our era, which is really tough,” 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne said. “Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt did that, but it was a different era. Now it’s so close and so competitive and so tough — not saying it wasn’t back then, but it is different now.”
“I’d say that he stands on that same plateau as them,” driver Greg Biffle said. “Petty was first, Earnhardt was the second, and potentially he’s the third. I wouldn’t say he takes the place. I’d say he’s the modern-day Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.”
For Johnson, who believes he didn’t fit in for a long time in NASCAR, that respect might be worth as much as a seventh championship.
“It was probably the second or third championship before I felt maybe the certain level of acceptance or respect,” he said. “I don’t know why. It could have very well been myself. And I know over the years, I have become a lot more comfortable in my own skin in the garage area, where I fit in the sport and how I fit into Hendrick Motorsports. It’s weird, sure.
“Now, in today’s world, I take a lot of ribbing from the guys, and that’s fine. The friendships, I look forward to it and enjoy it. I do feel the respect in the garage area, and it means the world to me. It means more than the trophies ever will.”