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Jimmie Johnson begins quest for 7th Sprint Cup title

Jimmie Johnson (above) needs one more Sprint Cup title to match the record of seven by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.

jared c. tilton/getty images

Jimmie Johnson (above) needs one more Sprint Cup title to match the record of seven by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — History has nowhere to hide now.

It cannot peddle fast enough to elude Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR’s reigning and six-time Sprint Cup champion, nor can it throw a last-lap block on him. Johnson is in history’s rearview mirror and he’s coming fast and furious.

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The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will be chasing history this season, tracking his seventh title beginning with Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500.

While his first six titles were momentous, the first five coming in from 2006-10, the seventh would be special. It would finally allow Johnson to rub shoulders with Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt as NASCAR’s only seven-time champions.

But when he returned to Daytona as the defending Daytona 500 winner, Johnson was quick to table any talk about his quest, saying only he was focused on navigating his way around the potential potholes of the season opener.

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“I haven’t put a lot of thought into it,’’ Johnson said. “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 few 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. So, I don’t have anything too relevant to discuss.’’

Perhaps Johnson was being modest. But his competitors have had plenty to discuss when it came to Johnson’s return to the throne. Tony Stewart snapped Johnson’s streak in 2011, and Brad Keselowski won in 2012, but they only claimed temporary custody of the Cup before handing it back to Johnson.

“Jimmie’s an animal,’’ said Kyle Busch. “I don’t know any better way to put it, really. It’s just amazing what he and that 48 team have been able to accomplish in this sport. Throughout the whole time of being here, even when he wasn’t winning championships his first four or five seasons, he was still finishing second, third, fifth — no worse than fifth ever. It’s just crazy what they’ve been able to do. They knock championships out like it’s popping M&M’s. It’s cool to see, but at the same time it’s frustrating because we’re racing against him right now.’’

Most frustrating of all to his competition, Johnson, 38, doesn’t appear to be on the verge of slowing down.

“He is an amazing talent, there’s no doubt about it,’’ said crew chief Chad Knaus. “He can do things with a racecar that most mortals can’t. Let’s just be straight with it.’’

But Johnson credits Knaus for being the architect of the team’s success. While other teams have undergone complete makeovers, the 48 has remained a model of consistency, if not continuity, with the partnership between Johnson and Knaus unchanged.

“I’m very blessed to be his crew chief,’’ Knaus said. “But I know that the resource that we have at Hendrick Motorsports allows him to be as good as he is. There’s no doubt about it. Mr. [Rick] Hendrick has given us everything that we could possibly need with engines, the chassis. We’re able to turn around and make things happen quickly. That’s not the way it is everywhere.

“Jimmie responds to that. He’s very into what it is we’re doing. He’s very studious, very intuitive of what’s happening around him, what’s going on when we’re testing or racing. He feeds us great information. He’s pretty spectacular.”

Johnson, who won the title last year by 19 points over Matt Kenseth, has 66 career victories, a third in Chase races. Since the inception of the Chase a decade ago, Johnson is the only driver to make all 10 editions of the the playoff format, which was tweaked this season.

Now, the Chase Grid will be expanded from 12 to 16 drivers. The field will be pared to four drivers through a three-phased elimination process before the finale at Homestead.

Initially, Johnson was dumbfounded by the change. But as he’s learned more about it, he’s grown to accept it as yet another challenge.

“You need to win in the Chase, and I know there are plenty [of drivers] capable of that,’’ Johnson said. “But I don’t know. I really don’t know how to look at the final 10 races and how to handicap it. I feel good about us in looking at statistics and what we’ve done in the past and winning races in the Chase.’’

When he was crew chief for the late Dale Earnhardt, ESPN analyst Andy Petree recalled the resentment in the garage area.

“You think back to when Dale Sr. was winning all those championships, and he was a very intimidating individual, and then the team kind of was that way, too,’’ Petree said. “I remember we’d win races down here for Speedweeks . . . you could hardly get a human being to talk to you in the garage area. None of the other teams would even speak to you. They didn’t care. They didn’t really like us. It seems like everybody likes Jimmie. Jimmie is a very likable guy.

“I think the thing he said is he was ‘motivating.’ People watch what he’s doing and how he’s doing it, and I think that that’s driving him more than anything.’’

That may explain why Johnson has adopted a rigorous training regimen, finishing last Sunday’s Daytona Beach Half Marathon in 1 hour, 28 minutes, 16 seconds.

Perhaps it was his way of making sure he kept his competitors at bay. Johnson has won the respect of his peers in the garage area.

“I have to say, though, it was probably the second or third championship before I felt maybe a certain level of acceptance or respect,’’ Johnson said. “I don’t know why, it could have very well been myself [feeling that way], but I know that over the years I have become a lot more comfortable in my own skin in the garage area and where I fit in the sport and how I fit into Hendrick Motorsports.

“It’s weird that it might have taken me two or three championships to feel that way, but there is an argument for that, for sure. Now, in today’s world, I take a lot of ribbing from the guys in the garage, and that is 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. Those relationships really are everything for me.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.
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