With five consecutive Sprint Cup Championships between 2006 and 2010, Jimmie Johnson made a pressing (and convincing) case for the title of "best NASCAR driver ever." But as he's petered out the past two seasons, and as he's continued to trail the likes of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in several key metrics, that argument has lost a little bit of steam.
On Sunday, however, at the 55th annual running of the Daytona 500, that argument regained momentum faster than Johnson's No. 48 Chevy.
With his familiar Lowe's logo twinkling in the Daytona sun, Johnson opened the 2013 NASCAR season with a victory at the sport's most famous event. And though the race itself, by many accounts, wasn't as entertaining (or gender-bending) as some might have hoped, the narrative that's about to unfold is captivating.
Johnson is already a member of countless "exclusive" lists in the world of motorsports. But in winning his second career Daytona 500 he joined yet another one—and an important one at that. He's now one of 10 drivers to ever win multiple times at the event.
Which begs a salient, albeit hard to decipher question: After Sunday's win, does Johnson have a legitimate claim for the tile of "greatest driver ever?"
Right now, probably not. That's impulsive and hyperbolic; we wouldn't want to be prisoners of the moment. Aforementioned legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt both have more impressive aggregate resumes. Both won seven Sprint Cup titles to Johnson's five, and the former won at Daytona seven times to boot.
However, the mere fact that Johnson is in the conversation speaks lengths about his impressive legacy. Even if he still, as of this second, compares not-so-favorably, most guys would kill just to be compared at all.
And that's just with regard to his on-track resume. What of everything Johnson has done as a figure and mogul?
Back in 2009, he became the first (and remains the only) driver to win the Associated Press' Top Male Athlete of the Year. He also sits atop Forbes' list of most influential athletes, a throne that speaks to his gentle charisma, but also to his eminence in sport.
After Sunday's victory, it's easy to imagine a world where Johnson's best days are in his windshield, not his rearview. He's only 37 years old and NASCAR, more than any other popular sport (for fairly obvious reasons), allows drivers to compete well into their golden years. He hasn't been able to win a title the past two seasons, but he certainly looked like a title-holder again at the Great American Race.
With another Sprint Cup Championship this season, Johnson will move within one title of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Whether he gets there remains to be seen, but for now, it's hard to imagine getting off to a better start.