Humble Johnson refuses to relax

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 14, 2008

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press
CORAL GABLES, Fla. ó Jimmie Johnson sat before nine former NASCAR champions, too respectful to reflect on his own place in history.
In just a few more days, he’ll likely have a third championship that will speak volumes to his legacy.
But until he wins that third consecutive Cup title ó which should come with an easy Sunday drive at Homestead-Miami Speedway ó Johnson refuses to contemplate tying Cale Yarborough’s 30-year record as the last driver to win three straight championships.
“Well, first you’ve got to do it,” Johnson said Thursday at a news conference to discuss his championship race with Carl Edwards. “And two, I don’t think I have, or any driver, has the right to proclaim their spot in history.
That’s not for that person to decide. That’s for the fan base, the guys that have done it and are in that club and were accepted into that club.”
With a healthy 141-point lead, Johnson simply needs to finish 36th or better Sunday to tie Yarborough’s mark. So this entire weekend is almost a formality ó a coronation for a 33-year-old driver who is rapidly moving up the chart of all-time NASCAR greats.So as he gazed across the room Thursday and saw Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Rex White, Ned and Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Kurt Busch, Bobby Labonte and Darrell Waltrip, someone one thought Johnson grew emotional.He later debunked that theory but expressed the utmost respect for the champions who came before him.
“I feel I can speak on behalf of a lot of the drivers that these guys are the heroes of the sport and made it what it is today,” Johnson said. “And we’ve got a big responsibility on our shoulders to not screw it up and to help it continue to grow. It’s a cool sport that we love, and we’re trying to do our best with it.”
That’s why Edwards won’t concede, determined he can make one final gasp for his first Sprint Cup title despite the overwhelming deficit.
Edwards knows Jeff Gordon had a motor problem last week at Phoenix and hopes those same bad parts get moved across the Hendrick Motorsports shop and into Johnson’s car. Or maybe Johnson will have an early problem that will take him out of contention. There’s also wishful thinking.
“I’m hoping Jimmie forgets how to drive,” Edwards said, “or has some sort of trouble between now and Sunday.”
Short of that, Edwards will simply focus on his race and hope for another strong finish in south Florida. In four career starts at Homestead, Edwards has three-top 10s. His lowest finish was 14th in his 2004 debut.
Edwards’ plan is to be up front, just in case catastrophe strikes Johnson.
“If something like that were to happen, we just have to make sure that we’re there to capitalize,” Edwards said. “If (Johnson) were to go out there and have trouble on the first lap, the most excruciating thing would be to finish eighth or ninth and still not go make it happen.”
In the 156 times Johnson and Edwards have raced each other, Edwards has never made up 141 points on Johnson in a single race. He did gain 127 points at Homestead in 2005.
“Have you heard that statistic?” Edwards asked Johnson. “You’d better be nervous. This is racing. We’ve all raced long enough to know that anything can happen. That’s a good confidence booster for me.”
Because anything can happen, Johnson isn’t ready to proclaim the title his.
“The thing I’m focused on the most is how we could lose this championship,” he said. “I feel good about things, but at the same time, I know that that possibility exists. This is motorsports. Things do happen. Like they say in football, you’ve still got to go play the game.”