Jimmie Johnson’s win at Atlanta Motor Speedway was historic in more than one way.
Sure, he tied NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt for seventh on the all-time wins list in Sprint Cup (76 wins apiece).
But also historic, if you want to call it that, was how little Johnson talked after the race – or during this past week – about the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and how he’s now already qualified for it.
Or, how he’s barely uttered a syllable about his quest for a seventh Sprint Cup championship, which would tie him with Earnhardt and Richard Petty for most career Sprint Cup championships by a driver (7 apiece).
There’s actually a reason for Johnson’s relative quietness. While he didn’t brag or spout off, there’s no question Johnson made it very clear heading into last season, as well as the first several races afterward, that he was bound and determined to win that seventh championship in 2015.
He was a man on a mission, to move into rarified air, so to speak, and join NASCAR’s two greatest drivers ever in the most exclusive club in the sport.
Johnson’s motivation throughout the 2015 preseason, heading into Speedweeks and then into the first quarter of the season was to win that seventh title.
As the 26-race regular season went on, Johnson ultimately won four races and was among the top contenders when the Chase began. He also scaled back talking about winning No. 7, perhaps not wanting to jinx himself.
But somehow, the damage had been done. Johnson went through the opening round of the Chase and struggled; ending with his elimination after the third race – at Dover, a track he had claimed 10 previous wins at.
To say Johnson’s elimination from the Chase was one of the biggest stories of the season is an understatement. In reality, it was arguably one of the biggest stories of Chase history.
How could a six-time champion come into the playoffs so strong and confidently, and three races later, he was — as the late Yogi Berra used to say – “outta there.”
Johnson ultimately ended up with a 10th place finish for 2015, which was almost as bad as his 11th place showing in 2014, the worst single-season performance in his Sprint Cup career.
In addition, those two seasons were the only time Johnson has ever finished lower than sixth in his career in the Cup series.
That’s why Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus – heck, add in team owner Rick Hendrick and the rest of the No. 48 team – have said virtually nothing about this year’s championship hopes or Johnson’s bid to finally match Petty and Earnhardt.
I don’t want to say Johnson was overconfident last season. He wasn’t. He simply talked about a goal he had sought for a long time and was no within his grasp.
To fall short like he did, there’s no question Johnson was disappointed. Even with five wins, how he exited the playoffs so quickly had to be ignominious, if not downright embarrassing.
But you never heard Johnson complain or lament “oh, whoa is me.” He took his lumps and his shortcoming like a gentleman, kept racing as best as he could, picked up a win in the Chase and played out the remaining string of the season.
There’s nothing wrong with having confidence or a goal, nor talking about either. But Johnson talked so much about his plan to win that seventh championship last season, that perhaps he talked too much about it.
That’s why we’ve heard virtually nothing about No. 7 in 2016. He barely talked about it during the offseason, ditto the annual preseason NASCAR Media Tour, during Speedweeks, after the Daytona 500 and again after his win at Atlanta.
It’s almost as if Johnson is avoiding talking about it – and maybe he is.
But there’s one other thing that Johnson hasn’t talked much about, either – and it’s something that actually is kind of fascinating.
If you’re into numerology, and even if he’s not talking about it, the numbers seem to be strongly favoring Johnson to win No. 7 in 2016.
Johnson won five consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 2006 through 2010.
Then, he fell short in 2011 (Tony Stewart won the championship) and again in 2012 (Brad Keselowski won his first Cup crown).
In other words, Johnson had a two-year off-streak, so to speak.
Johnson then came back to win title No. 6 in 2013, only to fall short again for the following two consecutive seasons – when he also recorded the afore-mentioned two worst single-season finishes of his Sprint Cup career.
Do you see a pattern here? A winning season, two non-championship seasons, another winning season, followed by two other non-championship seasons – and the two worst years he’s ever had.
If you don’t think Johnson is perhaps more motivated than he ever has been to win a championship, then you don’t know much about JJ.
He’s just not going to talk about it.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski