Johnson laps up staggering numbers

There's no question Jimmie Johnson's career is one that will be discussed long after he's finished his driving career.

He's rewriting records, raising the bar for what counts as an outstanding career and challenging the likes of Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon in the record books. And that's in his first 299 starts.

Imagine what else this 34-year-old has left to accomplish.

Scheduled to make his 300th career NASCAR Cup start this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, even Johnson seems a little amazed by his accomplishments.

Originally competing in the motorcycle ranks, he moved into stock cars and then into NASCAR. And from the start, he demanded attention. He grabbed the pole for his inaugural Daytona 500 -- a sign of things to come.

Since then, he has seldom slowed.

Johnson is already a four-time defending Cup champion and a winner of 50 Cup races. He's 10th -- that's right, 10th -- on the all-time winners list for a sport that has been going strong for more than 60 years. He's leading the points standings again this year and looking like a strong favorite to extend both of those numbers.

And those are just the most obvious stats.

If numbers tell the tale of a career, Johnson's are screaming superstar.

His 50 wins net a victory rate of 16.72 percent in a sport where 43 drivers are on the track vying for each points victory. He has 122 top-five finishes (40.8 percent of the time) and 186 top-10s. What are the odds of his posting another one this weekend? Johnson has finished in the top 10 in a staggering 62.2 percent of his starts.

Last weekend, he reached 10,036 laps led. How many times has he finished on the lead lap? In 233 of his 299 races -- almost 78 percent of the time, he can be counted on to finish among the lead-lap cars. That's in a sport where parts failures and crashes occur on a regular basis.

In just eight full seasons of competition -- Johnson is in his ninth -- he's second only to Gordon in wins for active drivers. (Gordon has 82.) Oh, and only three other drivers have hit the 50-win mark in their first 296 starts as Johnson did -- Gordon (232 starts), Darrell Waltrip (278) and David Pearson (293).

Even more staggering is the consistency he has shown since his rookie season. Johnson has not only won a race in each of his eight Cup seasons, but he also has won at least three a year. He stands alone in that category.

And his 10 wins in 2007 were the second-highest number of Cup victories in a year since -- you guessed it -- Gordon did so, winning 13 races in 1998.

Johnson has won races and championships in NASCAR's new-model car and older version.

On top of that, Johnson is a genuinely nice guy with a both a true admiration for NASCAR's fan base and a true appreciation for the history he is making.

In a lot of ways, though, the driver doesn't get the recognition for his accomplishments that he should.

"If you look at the stats and you look at the talent and you look at the dedication, just look at his record, I mean, I don't understand why it's not written now he's one of the best that's ever done this," team co-owner Rick Hendrick said recently.

"...I've watched a lot of guys from Richard Petty on up to current day. When you look at the level of competition since he's been in the sport, what he's done, what he's accomplished, I mean, I don't know what he's got to do, you know."

Certainly, Hendrick and crew chief Chad Knaus deserve credit for building the team surrounding Johnson, but the driver does his homework, studies tape and works to reach an optimum level of fitness.

It all comes together to net a stellar career.

Johnson is hesitant to compare himself with drivers of the past or to historically rank his accomplishments. He just drives hard and competes aggressively and lets everyone else talk about the rest.

He has, however, discussed reaching the 50-win mark and how that compares with the men he's tied with on that all-time list. And, in doing so, he shows his respect for the sport in which he's building his career -- and the men who came before him.

"If you look at Junior and Ned, it was kind of similar time frames, but their world of racing vs. the world that I live in today is so different," Johnson said. "There's always the argument of the greats in any sport, who was better, how they would do against each other. It's impossible to put it together because of the gap in time and how different the conditions are, and I think that applies to our world as well. Our world today is more competitive than the world they lived in.

"At the same time, I don't have the work during the week that those guys did as far as working on the car and taking it to the racetrack. In some cases even driving it to the racetrack and driving it home, as Ned Jarrett had to do at times. It's so different, it's hard to say, but I certainly respect both of those men and all that they've done. I'm very proud to be a part of the 50-win club."

Still, everyone seems surprised Johnson could be nearing his 300th start. In some ways, it seems as if he just broke into the sport. In others, he's so much a part of it that it's as if he has always been winning championships and winning races.

Over time, there's no doubt Johnson has been forced to raise the bar in terms of his expectations and his career goals. Not anymore. Now, though he must find his preseason hopes altered year to year, he refuses to focus on a number or to aim for specific things. Instead, he just tries to be as on top of his game as possible.

So far, that has been a perfect formula for success.

"I mentioned this before: I've accomplished far more than I had ever dreamt of," he said. "Now I find myself in this position of setting my goals higher and I really have never been one that is focused on one number. I don't have a set number of championships or race wins that I'm looking for or starts for that matter. It's more about the feelings that I have inside the car and the desire that I have to be in the car and I know that all of that is really, really strong right now and I want to keep doing what I am and being committed to my sport.

"I'm very proud of what I've accomplished, and it's hard to believe that eight full seasons have gone by and I'm in my ninth now. Coming up on 300 starts, it's amazing how fast time goes by in some respects, and in other ways, it feels like dog years. It doesn't, in the end, feel like eight full seasons at the Cup level."