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Johnson celebrates sixth title with eye on seventh

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson poses for a photo with six Sprint Cup trophies after the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Nov. 17 in Homestead, Fla. (Photo: Jerry Lai/USA Today Sports)

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson poses for a photo with six Sprint Cup trophies after the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Nov. 17 in Homestead, Fla. (Photo: Jerry Lai/USA Today Sports)

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Let the debate begin.

Even as Jimmie Johnson speeds through Champion’s Week and enjoys his coronation in Las Vegas, the focus of those who compete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and those who follow it, even peripherally, already has begun to move toward 2014.

The sport will fete Johnson throughout the week, culminating in Friday night’s 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards at Wynn Las Vegas (9 p.m., Fox Sports 2). The drivers who finished second through 10th in the final standings will express the appropriate respect and admiration for Johnson’s milestone sixth championship.

But the real milestone lies ahead, and everyone knows it.

Now that Johnson has won a sixth title, can he add a seventh? Can he tie the series record shared by two of the sport’s icons, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt?

If Johnson does tie the record, next year or thereafter, will he be revered at the level of the two legends who preceded him?

The debate is certain to be lively, as with other sports. Was Hank Aaron the equal of Babe Ruth? Could Muhammad Ali have beaten Rocky Marciano? Was Bobby Jones the greatest golfer of all time? Or was Jack Nicklaus? Or Tiger Woods?

Questions of Johnson’s rightful place in racing history will surface again and again as he celebrates his sixth championship in eight seasons. They will have dogged him at Wednesday’s Fanfest at the Fremont Street Experience. They will follow him to today’s NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon and the interview sessions that follow.

Doubtless the subject will come up during the popular NASCAR After the Lap at the Palms Casino Resort on Thursday afternoon.

And you can be certain the questions will be raised at Friday’s awards ceremony.

Nonetheless, Johnson would prefer to defer the discussion, at least for a little while.

“I don’t want to focus on that yet,” Johnson said Nov. 17 after the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “It’s not time. I want to unplug, enjoy the sixth, let it soak in. We’ll get to Daytona for testing soon enough (Jan. 9). I guess by then it’s probably appropriate to ask the question.

“I’m humbled by the nice things that have been said by competitors and owners, my peers in this industry. I think their opinion is very important. I don’t think my opinion matters. It’s not for the athlete, the driver. It’s bestowed upon you. It’s passed down from others.”

Those others already have started to speak. Homestead race winner Denny Hamlin allowed that Johnson might be the greatest ever.

Kyle Busch, who finished fourth in the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, admits he’s still searching for a way to beat Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus, the No. 48 team and the exceptional performance of the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization.

“It’s really tough, when you end the Chase (55 points out), or something like that, and you go back and you make up your ‘fake’ finishes,” Busch said the day after the final race at Homestead. “Give us 10th at Kansas. Give us fifth at Martinsville. Give us second at Texas.

“If you give us those finishes back, we’re still 20 short of the championship. Legitimately, if we could have ran and finished how well we could have done — perfect scenario — we were still 20 short of the championship. We would have finished right behind Matt Kenseth, third in points.”

Small wonder Busch and fellow NASCAR Sprint Cup competitors are singing Johnson’s praises.

“If others are saying it, I’m not going to deny it, chase it away,” Johnson said. “Sure, I would love to be considered (one of the greatest). If you look at stats, there’s still numbers out there that I need to achieve. That’s why I say, until I hang my helmet up, it’s not necessarily a fair conversation to have.”

Those numbers, with the clear exception of Petty’s unassailable 200 NASCAR Sprint Cup victories, are well within Johnson’s reach. The most obvious is the seventh title, but Johnson has other milestones within his reach.

In his first 12 full seasons, Johnson has accumulated 66 wins, eighth most all-time and within striking distance of all but Petty and David Pearson (105 wins). In addition to winning six championships, Johnson has finished second twice, third once, fourth once, fifth once and sixth once, a remarkable run of sustained excellence in NASCAR’s most competitive era.

Whether it’s in celebration or in competition, Johnson prefers to stay in the moment, but that will become increasingly difficult if he makes a concerted run at a seventh championship in 2014. As usual, Johnson plans to combat the distraction with a singleness of purpose.

“To have expectations to win championships is unfair,” Johnson said two days after the season finale. “I think it’s more realistic to expect an opportunity at a championship. To win, that’s a whole different story.”

“I made the Chase every year it’s been around (starting in 2004), so I’ve had that opportunity. I take a lot of pride in that. My motivation to follow through this year and to work as hard as I can really is the same motivation I’ve always had to succeed in this sport.

“I’ve worked so hard and long to get to this point, I’m finally on top of my game. I’ve worked a lifetime to get here. There’s more motivation staying on top for those reasons than chasing stats and the historical things that are out there in front of me now, it’s really something that comes from within.”

And yet, with all the buzz surrounding a possible seventh championship, Johnson allowed himself a moment to reflect on what a seventh title might mean.

“I could never have dreamed this big,” Johnson said during a tour of Las Vegas media outlets on Tuesday. “When I hear my name mentioned alongside Petty and Earnhardt, it still feels surreal.”