|05/14/12 01:58PM||Jimmie, Johnson, Rick Hendrick|
Johnson has bigger goals to accomplish
Five-time champion uses Darlington to remind others he can win more titles
By Joe Menzer, NASCAR.COM
May 14, 2012 1:59 PM, EDT
Now that Hendrick Motorsports' 200th win is finally out of the way, it's time to consider another number.
No, not 250. Even though driver Jimmie Johnson said owner Rick Hendrick threw that number out there almost immediately after Johnson's victory in the Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, the one everyone else in the Sprint Cup Series should be worried about is No. 6.
Sprint Cup career
* Through 11 races
In winning Saturday's race in dominating fashion, Johnson reminded the NASCAR world that he likely isn't done winning championships. And with the pressure of winning No. 200 out of the way for Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet team, their sights now are set squarely on the bigger, far more important picture.
Can the man nicknamed Five Time become Six Time by season's end?
There is no reason it can't happen. Anyone who thought Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus or pit-crew members had become complacent were served notice Saturday night that it isn't the case.
Of course, no one in their right mind should have thought that -- and few did. After their remarkable string of five consecutive Cup titles was snapped last year by Tony Stewart and his No. 14 Chevy team, Johnson and Knaus were as motivated as ever to get back at it and prove they're not done racking up titles.
Knaus might have fooled a few folks when he went scuba diving or whatever it was and missed a Daytona test in the offseason. But any illusions created then or any time vanished in a Victory Lane haze at perhaps NASCAR's toughest track.
Mullets and memories
The no-nonsense Knaus doesn't seem particularly nostalgic. Usually when folks try to get him to open up about his potential legacy in the sport, what he thinks of all of those consecutive championships, he talks about how he'll appreciate them years from now when he's in a rocking chair somewhere.
But even he acknowledged the special nature of Saturday night's triumph.
"A long time ago, when I started at Hendrick Motorsports back in 1993, man, I think I was like the 75th employee," Knaus said. "To sit back and think of the people that were there before me, the people that have been there since the day I started, contributed to the efforts, man, the list is long and it varies.
"I'm proud to be a part of it. I've bled HMS for a long time. To be a part of this, get 200 victories ... and we got the 150th for Mr. H in Vegas, too."
Knaus even thought back to when he worked as a tire changer for Jeff Gordon and then-crew chief Ray Evernham.
"I guess we won our 50th victory [for Hendrick Motorsports] here at Darlington. I was changing tires for the 24 car," Knaus said. "I had the Oakley sunglasses, a mullet. I was rocking back then."
He's really rocking now -- only with a lot less hair partying in the back [or much of anywhere else on his head these days].
Rich past, promising future
It wasn't until Knaus paired with Johnson in 2002 that the No. 48 portion of the Hendrick Motorsports party commenced. Johnson paid homage to that memory Saturday night as well.
"I was telling Rick earlier, I remember sitting at the 100th win celebration in the back of the room. I wasn't driving at HMS yet, probably had another six or eight months before my time started," Johnson said.
"We didn't have a sponsor. We weren't sure what was going to happen. Rick and [48 car owner] Jeff [Gordon] took that chance and started building a team for me."
Johnson was more than a little nervous when he met for the first time with the head of Lowe's Home Improvement about the company's planned sponsorship of his car.
"I remember sitting in with then-CEO Bob Tieleman at a meeting," Johnson said. "He stared across a table at me, asked point blank, 'Can you win? My company deserves a winner. Can you win?'
"I looked at him right in his eye and said, 'Absolutely, I can win.'"
Funny thing was that Johnson wasn't absolutely certain at that point if he could. Truthfully, neither was Knaus. The two barely knew each other.
"We all left that meeting thinking we made more promises than we could live up to," Johnson said. "But it all worked out."
It certainly did. Saturday night's victory was the 56th of Johnson's career in 374 Cup starts. He's tied for eighth all-time with Rusty Wallace, who is sure to be voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame soon.
Johnson already has four more championships than Wallace. And if Saturday night is any indication at all, he's already giving No. 6 some pretty hot pursuit.
"Last year, to finish out the championship in not the No. 48 style, that stung," said Johnson, who is fifth in the point standings. "We've been close to a lot of wins through the end of last year and this year and didn't get it done. So to get this 200th win, there are a lot of things pulling into this making this moment very special.
"I remember going to Rick's 100th win. I wasn't even driving for him yet. And I thought, 'I hope someday I can just contribute.'"
He and Knaus have done that, and so much more. And they're not done yet.