It now seems inevitable. Either next year or sometime in the next few, Jimmie Johnson will win a seventh championship, and in doing so, tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most NASCAR championships. And it's just as probable that Johnson will one day surpass them and hold the record alone.
But does winning a sixth title cement Johnson's standings among the greats who have ever competed in NASCAR? Or is he already the greatest and at this juncture of his career, simply padding an overwhelming and distinguished résumé?
"He'll go down in history as one of the greatest, if not the greatest," said Richard Childress, Earnhardt's longtime car owner. "He's got many good years ahead of him. I think he'll set a lot of records before he decides to hang it up."
Johnson aside, if you were to create a hierarchy of the greatest drivers of all time there seems to be a consensus on which drivers deserve recognition. Obviously, that list would see names like (in no particular order) Petty, Earnhardt, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough and others.
Among those names where does Johnson then fall?
Although his many detractors may not agree, many of whom can't look past the unfair perception that Johnson has a vanilla personality or perceive his dominance as bad for the sport, Johnson's credentials are immense. Furthermore if he were to walk away tomorrow, his legacy would already be secure and deserving of a place in the pantheon of NASCAR immortality.
Since his 2002 rookie year, Johnson has rewritten the NASCAR record book, winning five consecutive championships from 2006-2010 and another this season. Along the way he has amassed 66 victories -- 30 more than any other in that span -- and has been at his best in the sport's marquee events with two wins in the Daytona 500, four in the Brickyard 400, two in the Southern 500 and three in the Coca-Cola 600.
When you consider that Johnson has done all this in the most competitive era of NASCAR, it only adds to the scope his grandeur.
Unlike Petty or Earnhardt, for whom the depth of the field was severely compressed, Johnson enters a race knowing there are easily 20-some drivers who could win any given weekend. In Johnson's championship years on average 14.1 different drivers won races, contrast to 10.1 for Petty or 11.8 for Earnhardt.
"Unfortunately, we're racing during the Jimmie Johnson era," said Denny Hamlin, who finished second to Johnson in 2010. "We're just unlucky in that sense. I think being out there and racing with him, I can say that I think he's the best that there ever was. He's racing against competition that is tougher than this sport's ever seen."
One argument against Johnson's place in history is that he drives for the best team with the most resources and with a crew chief in Chad Knaus who is as good at his job as Johnson is at his.
Upon closer inspection, however, this argument is invalid.
When Petty was blitzing the competition in the 60s and 70s, his Petty Enterprises team was head and shoulders above the rest in terms of funding, equipment and personnel. Atop his pit box was Dale Inman, a 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, and Petty's engines were built by his brother Maurice Petty, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in January.
It was a NASCAR version of a dream team. Yet rarely does anyone deny "The King" his success because he had advantages others did not.
The same could be said of Gordon, who drives for the same Hendrick Motorsports team as Johnson and has done so throughout his career. And just because you align yourself with the top in the garage doesn't mean success is guaranteed.
In 2010, en route to his fifth straight title, Johnson was the only Hendrick driver to visit Victory Lane as teammates Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were all shut out of the winner's circle. That Johnson has continually flourished in an environment where there are no excuses for failure should be seen as a positive rather than a negative.
"Jimmie and that team are obviously unbelievable," said Kenseth, who twice now has finished runner-up to Johnson in points. "Never seen anything like this in the sport and probably will never see anything like it again. It's amazing with as tight as the rules are, multi-car teams, information sharing, and all that stuff. It's amazing they can figure out how to do that year after year."
Still in his prime at age 38 and with many years left to pursue more wins and championships, Johnson isn't ready to compare his résumé to others.
"I would love to be considered that," Johnson said. "If you look at stats, there's still numbers out there that I need to achieve. That's why until I hang my helmet up, it's not necessarily a fair conversation to have."
That's the six-time champion for you: always respectful and humble, letting his record stand for itself. Which is fine, but when it's all said and done the topic of who is the greatest ever is broached, Johnson shouldn't be surprised if the conversation begins and ends with the mere mention of his name.