Jimmie Johnson openly embracing run at seventh title

— -- HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Jimmie Johnson has sported a helmet this year that includes the images of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. Painted between the Hall of Famers, a florescent green "7" shines from the back.

Johnson didn't tell crew chief Chad Knaus about the helmet. He probably knew better. Knaus doesn't exactly endorse the looking-beyond-the-immediate-race strategy.

But Johnson needed something to focus on as he attempted to go from a six-time Sprint Cup champion to a record-tying seven-time titlist. Only Petty and Earnhardt have accomplished such a feat.

So after two seasons in which he failed to advance in the Chase for the Sprint Cup to the championship round, Johnson started racing with a helmet as a reminder of what he could accomplish.

"The fact I have the 7 and Dale and Richard's faces on my helmet is, one, respect to them and, two, just to put a target on something," Johnson said. "That's the goal. That's what I want to do. ... It's not that I'm trying to get to something so I can stop, that I'm getting to the peak of whatever it is and I'm good.

"It's more of a target that I just want to have something to focus on, obsess on."

That obsession, which started three years ago after Johnson won his sixth title, has turned into an opportunity Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. If Johnson can finish better than Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano in the Ford 400, Johnson will earn that seventh Sprint Cup title.

"He wants that [seventh] so badly," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on one of his podcasts. "We've had a few conversations about that, and I know how much that would mean to him. ... I believe he does deserve it.

"After everything he has put into the sport, I think it would be good for him to go ahead and win that championship."

When Earnhardt's father won his seventh title, the fans at Rockingham Speedway either cheered for their hero or against the driver who would tie their hero. Johnson could expect the same 22 years later.

He has legions of fans, and the Earnhardt endorsement certainly won't hurt him. But many NASCAR fans wouldn't want him to tie a record set when the championship was awarded by points throughout the entire season instead of a reset with 10 races remaining.

"It's one of those deals where I did my thing in my time, Earnhardt done his thing in his time," Petty said. "Jimmie is doing his thing in his time. So we never competed with each other.

"We won ours against who we was playing against. Earnhardt won his and Jimmie is winning against the people that he's running against, so there's no way to compare it. It's just a number."

Johnson has the incredible respect of Petty because he won five consecutive Cup titles in a system in which a driver had to run great over that 10-race stretch. He once had to average a fifth-place finish just to capture the crown over four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon.

"That's the most underrated record in all of sports, what Jimmie did there," said Richard's son, Kyle. "But you know what? [My dad] looked at it and said Jimmie may be just pausing at seven. He may go to eight.

"Here's a guy that has that potential to go on. We're talking seven, but here's a guy that's done it so fast that he can go to eight."

The 41-year-old Johnson never dreamed of getting to one. A former motorcycle and off-road racer, Johnson first came to NASCAR just hoping to win a Cup race.

"Winning seven? It would be insane," Johnson said. "I dreamed of winning a race and then to have 79 [wins] and the championships, I've had to move the bar up over the years because we've just had great fortune and great success.

"I'm not a stat guy and chase that. I'm aware of it. I'm aware of what it would mean. And, damn, I want to do it."

Johnson didn't realize the strain, the pressure of his consecutive championship streak until it got snapped in 2011 and he felt so much more relaxed going into Homestead. He failed to advance to the championship round in the first two years of the elimination format after his 2013 title.

That has led his crew, in rah-rah moments, to say that NASCAR tried to Jimmie-proof the Chase with this format, where four drivers get eliminated every three races and it's a best-finish-take-all day at Homestead -- a track where Johnson averages a 14th-place finish. Now the crew wants Johnson to prove he can win in any format.

"I'm trying to distinguish if it's championship pressure or if it's really about seven," Johnson said. "The last couple of years when the doors closed for whatever reason, there's a ton of pain and agony that goes with it.

"I don't think it's necessarily about seven. It's about missing the chance of winning one. Especially the last one. I felt like I could have been a player [last year]."

This year, Johnson didn't look anything like a player over the summer. But his Hendrick Motorsports team has rebounded since August, and he has won two races in the Chase. His win at Martinsville gave him three weeks to focus on Homestead.

It also allowed him to relax. He can go on 7-mile runs and think about the Homestead race. He also held an event for his foundation, in which he awarded grants to schools and the kids made toy race cars.

Johnson has an obvious tie to wanting to help public schools -- his mother drove a school bus for a living. His father operated a backhoe. Ironically, the driver whose grass roots most closely resemble Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s has fought a perception of a slick Californian who had money to get his ride. While Earnhardt used an intimidating persona to earn his stripes, Johnson opted for a professional, squeaky-clean image to make sure that sponsors wanted to support a driver with limited stock-car experience.

"I fought that my whole career. ... People just thought I had the silver spoon lifestyle," Johnson said. "That would have made things a heck of a lot easier if that was the case.

"But it wasn't. People thought Junior Johnson was my father [for] the longest time."

Laugh all you want, but the funny thing is that among the four finalists, Johnson might be the easiest to go have a drink with or celebrate a title. His championship celebration stories are ones that would make any college kid proud and he once proclaimed his liver hated him during one of his championship media tours.

While he might not have the due respect of fans across the board, he does have it in the garage -- every garage he has competed in throughout his career. Not only does team owner Rick Hendrick bid at items during the Jimmie Johnson Foundation annual dinner and golf tournament, his former Xfinity Series owner, Stan Herzog, does too. As do his former racing buddies Jeremy McGrath, jet ski racer Victor Sheldon and off-road Hall of Famer Walker Evans.

"He's a class guy," rival team owner Roger Penske said. "He represents the industry, the garage area, the driver area in such a great way. To me, if he gets it, he sure deserves it."

If he gets it, he can retire the helmet. And then torment his crew chief a little by having a helmet designed for a run at the eighth title.

"I saw it, and I was like, 'Oh boy,'" Knaus said about his first spotting the helmet on top of the car. "Look, everybody gets motivated differently. Everybody has different things in their mind that gets them going in the morning or continues to motivate them throughout the course of the day.

"Jimmie, I think it's not only a motivation for him to have that stuff on his helmet. I also think it's a show of respect to the people that he is chasing. I think it's a pretty cool thing."

In addition to the tributes to the seven-time champions, what makes the helmet cool is the 7, painted in a way in tribute to the memory of Ricky Hendrick, Rick's son who was among 10 killed in a Hendrick Motorpsorts plane crash in 2004. Ricky used to write his 7 in that style.

Johnson didn't design the helmet. He told artist Jason Beam what he wanted -- images of Petty and Earnhardt as well as some way to pay tribute to Ricky -- and Beam did the rest. He found some old-school photos of Earnhardt and Petty both in cowboy hats that he felt gave it a sweet old-school feel and would work best on the helmet. He added "Chasing" to the 7 after getting a text from Johnson talking about "chasing" the seventh title.

Beam designs helmets for several drivers -- including two of the four finalists, with Busch and Johnson. He did one for Brendan Gaughan that had the family logo and a championship trophy prior to the 2003 truck championship race, which Gaughan ended up not winning.

"I'm really superstitious," Beam said. "I was like, [Gaughan] you're jinxing yourself. ... I've watched this past couple of weeks this whole helmet hype, this whole seven hype and I'm thinking I hope it's not going to jinx him out of winning."

For Beam, he had no problem trying to make an iconic helmet for Johnson.

"I've done Jimmie's helmets for 16 years," Beam said. "I'm really comfortable with what I do. Jimmie has always been very supportive. Jimmie doesn't have a lot of input.

"He has really trusted my judgment. I nailed what his style is years ago."

Maybe that's why Johnson has had such a successful run. He doesn't wig out about the small details, putting his faith in the people with talent. All that Knaus asks is that the helmet remains lightweight.

Beam has more Johnson helmets to paint. While winning a seventh would be cool, Johnson has no thoughts of winning the title Sunday and then calling it a career. He would go for eight. Or nine. Or possibly even more, although many don't see him racing much past 45.

"You'll still have to deal with me -- there's no mic drop," Johnson said. "My wife might like that, but I'm not there yet. She doesn't want to deal with me -- I still have too much racing in my system to get out."

Even Petty would think of it as cool if Johnson ties his record. But Petty has been around racing long enough to know that racing is unpredictable at best.

So he'll watch the race Sunday and see if he welcomes another driver into the seven-title club.

"Being that I don't have a dog in the hunt, I don't care [if he does it]," Petty said. "And if he does, I'm going to say, 'Congratulations.'

"If he don't, 'Try again next year.' "