Sports

NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson clings to hope of a record-tying seventh Cup title

Jimmie Johnson

NASCAR drivers Jimmie Johnson, right, and Kyle Busch, chat in the garage area during practice Friday for the Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400.

(Jonathan Moore / Getty Images)

Earlier this year Jimmie Johnson was asked how he would feel if his career ended without his winning a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

Johnson, tongue in cheek, replied with a smile: “My life sucks. That would be terrible.”

A seventh championship is about the only thing Johnson hasn’t accomplished in NASCAR, which returns to Fontana on Sunday for the Auto Club 400, the fifth race of the Cup season.

Considered among the best NASCAR drivers in history, Johnson has six titles — including five consecutive from 2006 through 2010 — and he’s won 76 races, tying him with the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. for seventh on the all-time Cup wins list.

Johnson also has earned more than $150 million in career race winnings for his Hendrick Motorsports team. Last year alone, Johnson himself collected $22.7 million from his salary, his share of race winnings and endorsements, Forbes estimated.

Johnson’s latest victory came last month in Atlanta. On his victory lap there, Johnson paid homage to Earnhardt and his No. 3 Chevrolet by holding his arm out the window and flashing a three-finger salute to the crowd.

The win all but assures Johnson a spot in NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup playoff again this season and another opportunity to tie Earnhardt and Richard Petty with seven championships.

That’s why the online betting site Bovada.com gives Johnson and defending Cup champion Kyle Busch 7-to-1 odds to win another championship this year, behind only the 5-to-1 favorite Kevin Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion.

If there’s a track where Johnson can maintain his momentum in his No. 48 Chevrolet, it’s the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

Johnson, 40, is the only five-time Cup winner at the track. The first of those wins was the El Cajon native’s first Cup victory when he was a rookie in 2002.

“That first win will forever be one of the most special moments in my career,” Johnson said in notes released by his team.

“It was such a great feeling to win in my home state and then to follow it up over the years with four more wins,” he said. “It’s a pretty special place for me.”

Two of those Fontana wins came in consecutive years, in 2009 and ’10.

In the last four years, however, Johnson has finished no better than ninth at Fontana. He starts 19th in the 39-car field Sunday.

Johnson grew up racing off-road vehicles and, when he moved to NASCAR stock-car racing, his goals were modest.

“I thought, man, if I can win a race, they’ll keep me around for a couple more years, [I’ll] make a little money, then I’ll go back racing dirt, life will be good,” he recalled earlier this year.

What happened instead is that Johnson became so dominant that he annoyed a good portion of NASCAR’s fan base.

Despite his remarkable achievements, many fans frowned on Johnson being so routinely competitive. His often bland and even-keeled public persona didn’t help his cause with NASCAR fans who like their racers colorful and controversial.

Some even suggested that Johnson’s five consecutive titles contributed to the falling off of NASCAR’s popularity in the last several years, a notion Johnson has firmly rejected.

The griping about Johnson’s winning ways has ebbed somewhat because he’s been unable to capture another season championship since 2013 despite winning nine races in 2014-15.

But anyone underestimating Johnson’s shot at a seventh title does so at his own risk, especially because Johnson is still paired with long-time crew chief Chad Knaus, who many consider the brainiest and hardest-working crew chief in the garage.

This weekend the hood of Johnson’s Chevy is sporting a decal of Superman’s “S” shield to promote the new movie “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Johnson’s teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has the rival Batman emblem on his No. 88 Chevrolet.

In light of Johnson’s history at Fontana, including the fact that he has led a track record 955 laps in Cup races, it seems apt that he’s carrying the Superman logo at Auto Club Speedway.