Their career marks for home runs, points and goals, respectively, were so revered in their sports that they became major media events when they fell.
Another major sports record could be tied this year, the one for Sprint Cup championships in a career: seven, currently held by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, and being pursued by Jimmie Johnson.
The 2014 season of NASCAR’s top series gets into gear Sunday, Feb. 23, at Daytona International Speedway, as Fox airs the 56th running of the Daytona 500. Johnson will begin his quest to tie the record — as well as defend his 2013 race title — on the 2.5-mile Florida tri-oval in a 43-car field that includes Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon. Johnson won his second career “Great American Race” a year ago on this course after emerging from the pack with 16 laps to go. It would turn out to be the beginning of another championship season, as he rang up five more victories in 2013, including the summer race at Daytona.
Looking back at his six titles in a Cup career that began in 2001, Johnson is a little overwhelmed at what he’s accomplished — and a bit regretful.
“First and foremost, I say, ‘Wow!’ ” the 38-year-old Southern California native tells Zap2it.
“And the crazy thing is I look back on how close we came in ’04, the fact that we had a shot at it in ’05 and the fact that we had a shot at it in ’12. You know, I’ve been very fortunate to have had a lot of chances at it. And before I won my first in ’06, I wasn’t sure; I was feeling a lot of stress and pressure that my chances at a championship were slipping away because ’04 and ’05, we really had opportunity and didn’t capitalize on it. So I’m happy we’ve taken advantage of things, and look back and say, ‘Man, it would have been nice to have capitalized on one or two of those other ones.’ “
On the subject of tying Petty, Johnson admits he has never spoken about the record with the man known as “The King,” despite the fact that the 76-year-old North Carolinian is a regular at Cup races on Sundays as owner of his own team, Richard Petty Motorsports. But Johnson says Petty has made gestures that he’s appreciated.
“He’s made a couple of comments about, ‘Go get six. Records are made to be broken.’ And he’s made a couple other passing comments to me … ,” Johnson says.
“And through last year, I’d say we chatted a bit more. And his was the last hand I shook when I pulled off pit road my final race last year at Homestead (Fla.). And he just threw a big smile on his face, cleaning the car, and told me to enjoy it because it’s all going to be over before you know it. You know, just how fast time goes by and knowing from his own experience that we’re always so worried about tomorrow and never enjoy today. I was really touched by the effort he made to come by and wish me good luck and tell me to savor the moment.”
Reminded of that conversation, Petty laughs.
“Yeah, I remember that,” he says. “I’ve talked to a lot of people on different deals, whether they’re winning ballgames or winning stuff and say, ‘Look, the sun don’t always shine on you. Enjoy it while you can. Don’t say, “OK, this is the way it is. It’ll be that way next year.” You gotta connect. So always try to enjoy it yourself at that particular moment and get the most out of it because you might not [be able] to come by here again.’ “
Petty, also the Cup record holder for career wins (200) and poles (123), among his many other marks, admires Johnson’s smarts behind the wheel.
“He drives to what he thinks he’s still got control of what’s going on,” he says. “It used to be he drove over his head. Now he’s learned to drive a little bit better. He’s very calculating. Between him and the crew chief (Chad Knaus) and stuff, they know what they can do, and they go out and do it, and sometimes it’s good enough to go out and win races, and sometimes it’s not, but they don’t panic because of it.”
Rick Hendrick, who in 2001 signed Johnson to his team, Hendrick Motorsports, is similarly impressed.
“I had no idea he would be this good,” he says. “I mean, you think you know. Jeff (Gordon) had raced against him and said, ‘He’s the real deal. He’s got tremendous talent.’ My son (the late driver and team co-owner Ricky Hendrick) felt that way. We didn’t have anything in the records to show he’d be this good, but when you got him in the car and started watching him and listening to him, he’s such a student of the sport, he’s just done a phenomenal job. But you never know until you get him in that position.”
For his part, Johnson says competing, not records, is what he tries to stay focused on, but he can’t completely block out all the talk.
“I’ve honestly never been driven by statistics and have not used the win record or anything like that to motivate me,” he says. “I’ve always just raced and wanted to leave the track knowing I did my best. I know that sounds corny, but it’s very, very true. And I can’t hide the fact that I’m sitting here at six and can tie at seven. So for really the first time in my career, I am focused on a stat and on trying to match what those two great drivers have accomplished.
“I just want to be competitive, and I want a shot,” he continues. “I want to go to Homestead with a shot at the championship and be able to race for the championship. That is truthfully the thing that I lie awake at night thinking about, wake up in the morning and train hard for, with that notion, with that mindset that I want an opportunity. If I get it, that’s gravy.”