Records, as they say, are made to be broken. And a major sports record could be tied this year, the one for Sprint Cup championships in a career: seven, currently held by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, and being pursued by Jimmie Johnson.
The 2014 season of NASCAR's top series gets into gear Sunday, Feb. 23, at Daytona International Speedway, as Fox airs the 56th running of the Daytona 500. Johnson will begin his quest to tie the record -- as well as defend his 2013 race title -- on the 2.5-mile Florida tri-oval in a 43-car field that includes Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon.
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Daytona 500The race airs at 11 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 23, on Fox
Johnson won his second career "Great American Race" a year ago on this course after emerging from the pack with 16 laps to go. It would turn out to be the beginning of another championship season, as he rang up five more victories in 2013, including the summer race at Daytona.
Looking back at his six titles in a Cup career that began in 2001, Johnson is a little overwhelmed at what he's accomplished -- and a bit regretful.
"First and foremost, I say, 'Wow!'" the 38-year-old Southern California native says. "And the crazy thing is I look back on how close we came in '04, the fact that we had a shot at it in '05 and the fact that we had a shot at it in '12. You know, I've been very fortunate to have had a lot of chances at it."
On the subject of tying Petty, Johnson admits he has never spoken about the record with the man known as "The King," despite the fact that the 76-year-old North Carolinian is a regular at Cup races on Sundays as owner of his own team, Richard Petty Motorsports. But Johnson says Petty has made gestures that he's appreciated.
"He's made a couple of comments about, 'Go get six. Records are made to be broken.' And he's made a couple other passing comments to me ...," Johnson says. "And through last year, I'd say we chatted a bit more. And his was the last hand I shook when I pulled off pit road my final race last year at Homestead (Fla.). And he just threw a big smile on his face, cleaning the car, and told me to enjoy it because it's all going to be over before you know it. ... I was really touched by the effort he made to come by and wish me good luck and tell me to savor the moment."
Reminded of that conversation, Petty laughs. "Yeah, I remember that," he says. "I've talked to a lot of people on different deals, whether they're winning ballgames or winning stuff and say, 'Look, the sun don't always shine on you. Enjoy it while you can. Don't say, "OK, this is the way it is. It'll be that way next year." You gotta connect. So always try to enjoy it yourself at that particular moment and get the most out of it because you might not (be able) to come by here again.'"
Petty, also the Cup record holder for career wins (200) and poles (123), among his many other marks, admires Johnson's smarts behind the wheel.
"He drives to what he thinks he's still got control of what's going on," he says. "It used to be he drove over his head. Now he's learned to drive a little bit better. He's very calculating."
For his part, Johnson says competing, not records, is what he tries to stay focused on, but he can't completely block out all the talk.
"I've honestly never been driven by statistics and have not used the win record or anything like that to motivate me," he says. "I've always just raced and wanted to leave the track knowing I did my best. I know that sounds corny, but it's very, very true. And I can't hide the fact that I'm sitting here at six and can tie at seven. So for really the first time in my career, I am focused on a stat and on trying to match what those two great drivers have accomplished."