Jimmie Johnson's tires hadn't cooled off after he completed the final lap of the final race of the season awhile back ‑‑ wrapping up his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship ‑‑ when someone asked the question: What's his chances of winning No. 7 next year?
Johnson rolled his eyes and grimaced. Let him enjoy this one for a few minutes, he pleaded, before starting to worry about the next one.
But the "next one" won't be just any one. It'll be No. 7, and it will tie Johnson with racing immortals Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most in NASCAR history.
That's some tall cotton, and already there's muttering about whether Jimmie deserves to share the company of such stock car titans.
Johnson's critics ‑‑ and they are legion ‑‑ claim that the reason why he's so good is because his team's so good.
That's true to an extent. Buckle Jimmie into say, Joe Nemechek's car, and see how many races and championships he wins.
But that could be said of any athlete who competes in any team sport. They're only as good ‑‑ or at least as successful ‑‑ as the people around them.
Nobody had a better supporting cast during his prime driving days than Richard Petty. He had the benefit of big (for the times) money, great cars and a superior team. When King Richard was compiling most of his record 200 victories, he enjoyed a distinct advantage over the majority of his competition.
The same was true for Earnhardt, to a somewhat lesser extent. As his career accelerated and the big money started rolling in, Dale's teams got better and his cars got faster. Earnhardt faced more legitimate challengers on a race-by-race basis than Petty, but he nevertheless had an advantage over most of the field.
Jimmie Johnson's not much different. Does he enjoy the advantage of driving for a team that's superior to every other team in NASCAR? Definitely. But that shouldn't detract from what he's been able to accomplish.
Jimmie's problem is that's he's almost too good for his own good. He makes driving a race car look easy, like a trip to the grocery store. Have a good race, Jimmie ‑‑ and, oh by the way, pick up a jug of milk and a loaf of bread on your way to Victory Lane.
Another reason behind the criticism of Johnson is that's he's so bland. I've said it myself.
He lacks Petty's charm and charisma, and Earnhardt's fiery, gritty edge.
Jimmie is a latte driver in a moonshiner sport.
From Junior Johnson to Jimmie Johnson. What could be more symbolic of NASCAR's transformation from boondocks to Broadway?
Junior Johnson was plowing barefoot behind an old mule one afternoon on the family's hardscrabble farm when his older brother roared up and asked him to drive his stock car in a race that night. Junior put on his shoes and rode off into racing history.
Safe to say, Jimmie never plowed behind a mule, barefoot or otherwise.
But he's a heck of a race driver ‑‑ among the best ever ‑‑ and at 38 he's in his prime. And so The Question looms: Can Jimmie Johnson win a seventh championship and tie Petty and Earnhardt?
And if does, can he win No. 8 and take sole possession of the record?
For Jimmie, the questions never end.