HAMPTON, Ga. – Jimmie Johnson reached another milestone in his brilliant NASCAR career.
This one was really special.
Win No. 76.
Right up there with the Intimidator.
Johnson's victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday pushed him into a tie for seventh place on the career list with the late Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500 just a few months before Johnson joined the Cup series.
"I didn't have a chance to race against him," Johnson said. "There's been a big void in my mind ... so to tie him, for me personally, it gives me a little bit of attachment to the great Dale Earnhardt."
After a chaotic finish, the significance of the triumph didn't occur to Johnson at first. Then it hit him, so he took another spin in front of the grandstand, sticking his hand out of the car to hold up three fingers.
No. 3 was Earnhardt's number, of course.
And, in an appropriate twist, Johnson teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the line next, edging out Kyle Busch for the runner-up spot by mere inches.
"I think dad would've liked Jimmie as a person," Junior said, "but he certainly wouldn't have enjoyed competing against him."
Next on Johnson's bucket list: another series championship. By winning the second race of the season, he essentially wrapped up his spot in the season-ending Chase, where he'll be attempting to join Earnhardt and Richard Petty as the only drivers to capture seven Cup titles.
"The six that I have, I know how special and meaningful they are," Johnson said. "If I have a chance to win a seventh and tie Petty and Earnhardt, that would be just monumental."
Polished and well-liked throughout the garage, Johnson would appear to have little in common with the Intimidator, a rough-and-tumble driver who didn't mind making others mad and doing whatever it took to win the race — even if it meant knocking someone out of the way.
"He didn't get that Intimidator title by being nice to everybody," quipped Rick Hendrick, the owner of Johnson's No. 48 car.
But Earnhardt Jr. thinks his father, if he had lived, would have become fast friends with Johnson.
Certainly, he would've respected Johnson's skills behind the wheel, which were on full display Sunday as he struggled to maintain control of his car on fading tires, having made his final green-flag pit stop ahead of everyone else in a strategic bid to snatch the lead away from Kevin Harvick.
"Knowing dad and knowing Jimmie's character, they would've gotten along tremendously and dad would've thought the world of him," Earnhardt Jr. said. "How can you not like Jimmie? He's just a good guy who never stepped over the line with anything he's ever said or anything he's ever done."
All he does is win, with staggering consistency.
The 40-year-old has now earned a victory in every full-time Cup season, extending the streak to 15 years in a row. As fit as any driver in the series, he could likely remain at the top of the game for another decade or more. While Petty's record of 200 career victories is unlikely to ever be duplicated — he competed largely in a different era with far more races each year — Johnson certainly has the potential to reach the second spot on the list.
David Pearson won 105 times. Johnson has averaged a bit more than five victories a year, a pace that would push him past the Silver Fox in another six seasons.
Shorter term, Johnson can set his sights on Cale Yarborough (83 victories), Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip (84 apiece), and longtime teammate Jeff Gordon, who retired after last season with 93 wins.
"You've got to say that he's one of the best that's ever been in the sport," Hendrick said of Johnson. "It's going to be interesting to see how many races and championships Jimmie and Chad (Knaus, his crew chief) can win."
It was Knaus who made the call that essentially gave Johnson a shot at his latest victory. Knowing it would be tough to get around Harvick, who led more laps than anyone, the crew chief brought in the No. 48 for its last scheduled pit stop nine laps before Harvick, gambling that Johnson could make his tires last longer on the bruising Atlanta track.
The move worked, giving Johnson a big lead, though a late yellow flag forced overtime. Everyone came back into the pits for new tires, Johnson returned to the track still out front, and a four-car crash on the backstretch shortly after the restart sealed the win.
Johnson gave much of the credit to his crew chief.
Knaus gave it right back.
"Jimmie is pretty amazing, isn't he?" the crew chief said, breaking into a big smile. "Let's be honest, he's just a heck of a race-car driver."
Even the Intimidator would agree with that.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .