Jimmie Johnson celebrates with his crewmembers after winning Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Brian LawdermilkGetty Images
In the transition from the old school, hard knuckle racing to the new school, ‘playoffs and overtime’ era of NASCAR, only one thing has been certain – Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have stood above the rest.
And no, it hasn’t even been close.
Johnson’s win in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, his second-straight victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway, placed the Hendrick Motorsports driver in rare, elite company. The win was Johnson’s 76th, tying him with the legendary Dale Earnhardt for seventh all-time.
Yes, that Dale Earnhardt. Senior. The Intimidator.
The man whose career enamored everyday people across the United States, and whose death sparked changes that continue to be made today.
Fittingly, Johnson earned the victory in the same way he’s stayed dominant for well over a decade; by figuring out ways to win in any race, old school or new.
Sunday’s 2016 low-downforce package debut was a hit at Atlanta. With machines that proved hard to drive, soft tires that wore quickly and a racing surface that exacerbated both issues, the 500-mile feature at Atlanta proved to be the closest thing to vintage NASCAR the sport has seen in years.
The field entered Sunday with fears of cut tires and multiple yellow flags, but those fears were quickly washed away as the opening green-flag run stretched for the entire first half of the race. In the place of the cautions and double-file restarts were pit strategy, focus on tire conservation and multi-lane battles for position.
In classic style, Johnson proved to be among the contenders.
No, he didn’t have the best car – that title would go to Kevin Harvick, who dominated much of the day’s festivities. And no, he didn’t have the best stall or track position, rolling off 19th. But what Johnson did have was patience, a good handling car and the best crew chief in the game in Knaus.
In the first ‘old-school’ race NASCAR has seen in recent memory, Johnson took advantage of well-timed pit stops after climbing through the field and surged to an 11-second lead over Harvick in the closing stint, one that he wouldn’t relinquish. Cruising toward the finish, it was clear that the six-time Sprint Cup champion was going to ride off into the sunset.
Then, suddenly, the ‘new-school’ NASCAR returned.
Not that it mattered.
Ryan Newman’s spin with three to go forced the field to participate in NASCAR’s new ‘Overtime’ rules for the first time in the regular season. Johnson would have to beat Harvick on a restart, and hold off defending series champion Kyle Busch to claim his legend-tying victory.
Johnson would hold the lead with ease.
Fittingly, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Johnson’s HMS teammate and the son of the driver Johnson was tying in victories, rose up to second in the final moments, placing the name Earnhardt alongside Johnson in the record books both in the race and his career.
Since entering the Sprint Cup Series as Jeff Gordon’s prodigy in 2003, Johnson has been a consistent force in the paddock. Sunday’s win means the Californian has achieved at least one win in every full season in his 15-year career. In the ever-changing world of NASCAR in the 2000s, Johnson has won six championships, two Daytona 500s, four Brickyard 400s and a litany of other accomplishments.
Many would hold the era Johnson has competed in against him. They just don’t race like they used to! Chase championships shouldn’t even count! The cars aren’t even real stock cars!
Johnson has heard every excuse for his success to be nullified, for an asterisk to be placed next to his name in the record books. Through it all, he’s kept a smile on his face, and an extra tenth of a second in his back pocket.
#BlameJJ. Make whatever excuses you will. When the final checkered flag waves on Jimmie Johnson’s career, the driver of the No. 48’s record will speak for itself.
Sunday, Johnson joined The Intimidator in the NASCAR record books. That’s an incredible feat. But what’s even more incredible is that Johnson isn’t done.
Old school or new, JJ’s legend will keep on rising.