Throughout the week Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had engaged in playful banter over who would finish better Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. There were videos, gifs and various forms of trash-talk at the other's expense all part of a campaign that saw the Hendrick Motorsports teammates each have special superhero paint schemes -- Johnson represented Superman, Earnhardt Batman.
So it was only fitting that to win Sunday, Johnson needed to conjure the kind of effort normally associated with The Man of Steel. In a race Kevin Harvick dominated by leading 142 of 250 laps, Johnson somehow would have to find a way to pass Harvick on an overtime restart.
"I was telling Jimmie just before that restart, ‘Buddy, dig in deep, go find that cape,'" said Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief.
As instructed, Johnson stepped into a proverbial phone booth because when the green flag fell signifying just two laps remaining, he kept pace with Harvick then dove underneath him entering Turn 1. From there Johnson stayed alongside the No. 4 car before completing the pass down the backstretch and motoring away for his second win of the season and 77th of his career.
"I couldn't be prouder," Knaus said. "Jimmie is obviously an amazing, amazing talent behind the wheel. For him to do what he did, I think speaks volumes about what that man is capable of."
What's the saying? Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive. Because the descriptors are also befitting of Johnson, who continues to construct a résumé of why he's one of NASCAR's all-time greats.
With Sunday's win Johnson broke a tie with Dale Earnhardt Sr. for seventh all-time on NASCAR's wins list. Next up is Cale Yarborough (83) with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison (84) tied for fourth all-time, marks Johnson could conceivably surpass sometime next year, as he averages nearly five victories a season. He's already won two of five races in 2016.
Johnson long ago entered rarefied territory when he rolled off five consecutive championships from 2006-10, but with each passing win he further asserts his legacy. Richard Petty's record 200 wins may be insurmountable (Petty competed in an era when NASCAR ran 45-plus races a season), however Jeff Gordon's modern era record of 93 wins is certainly attainable.
Of course, as is his nature, Johnson dismisses any talk. Although he's in tremendous shape physically and shown indication that his best days are behind him, at age 40 he knows he doesn't have too many years left.
Eventually all drivers slow down. It happened to Petty and Gordon, Waltrip and Earnhardt. And someday it will happen to Johnson. No driver can outrun Father Time.
"I feel like physically and mentally I'm the best that I've ever been in my career," Johnson said. "I'm in a great space and really enjoying going to the race shop, going to the racetrack, working with my team. Which tells me it makes me want to stick around and do this for a lot of years."
Then came the caveat.
"There's no guarantees about when you're going to win and have success," Johnson added. "I've been very, very fortunate to win 77 of these things, which blows my mind on its own. It's easy to look at trends and say we win X a year, but at some point that stops, that stops for everybody. I don't know when that point is for me. I certainly hope it's not soon.
"I would love to get to Jeff. But you never know."
And yet, equaling Gordon's victory total is doable just as hitting triple digits isn't a far-fetched proposition, either. Just as you don't tug on Superman's cape, it's also unwise to doubt Johnson, who possesses a knack for winning even on days when his car isn't the best -- a characteristic he displayed Sunday and winning Feb. 28 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Habitually Johnson has proved naysayers wrong whether it's those who thought Hendrick should have hired a more qualified driver when deciding to expand in 2001 or stringing together five straight titles despite a playoff format that equalized the field.
In an era where the opposition is deeper than at any point in NASCAR history, Johnson remains the standard-bearer year in, year out. Not once in 16 seasons has he won fewer than two races a season and with another championship he will tie Petty and Earnhardt Sr. for most all-time with seven overall.
"You are going to break a lot of guys' records in this sport if you are Jimmie Johnson winning races like he is," Earnhardt Jr. said. "You are going to break a lot of records."
Just as Petty and Earnhardt Sr. were in theirs, Johnson is the defying driver of his generation. An unquestioned legend, whose marvels continue to amaze even when he's not wearing a cape.