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USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Hembree previews the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
USA TODAY Sports

This all began in 1964.

Richard Petty, stepping with authority outside the considerable shadow of his championship-winning father, Lee, won nine races and the NASCAR Cup Series title, his first.

Six more championships followed, with Petty winning his last in 1979. A year later, the sport’s next king stepped forward in the rangy form of Dale Earnhardt.

In Petty’s last championship year, Earnhardt won the Rookie of the Year title but did so without offering any strong hints that he might surge to his first title the next year. Earnhardt then stacked titles across the ’80s and ’90s, eventually tying Petty at seven in 1994.

The two superstars, both born in North Carolina to race-winning fathers, posed together for photographs as the only two Cup champions with seven trophies.

Jimmie Johnson, the next seven-timer, began his run across the crest of the next century, scoring for the first time in 2006. Four consecutive championships followed as Johnson dominated like no driver before him. He then added titles in 2013 and 2016 to join Petty and Earnhardt at lucky seven.

The gate toward eight swings open again this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway as Johnson looks to lock up a berth as one of four drivers competing for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19. 

Johnson, 42, hopes to race at least three more seasons, so there could be more opportunities to reach that elite eight.

But why not now?

JOHNSON: Fueling up for run at record eighth championship

COLUMN: Johnson embracing pressure in pursuit of record

TAKEAWAYS: Will wild Martinsville finish lead to retribution at Texas?

ELLIOTT: Martinsville wreck cost him win but may have gained him fans

Earl Barban agrees. He has been a key figure in Johnson’s money years, working as the driver’s spotter and eye in the sky in 2006 and from 2009 forward, earning five title rings as part of the Hendrick Motorsports army.

“We know he has at least three more attempts at it, plus this year,” Barban told USA TODAY. “I won’t let him down in pursuit of that. And I know he won’t let us down. I know everybody on that team is doing all they can to make that happen.”

Johnson enters Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network) in fifth place among the eight playoff drivers, three points below the current cutoff line. A win at Texas Motor Speedway or at Phoenix Raceway would advance Johnson to Homestead, where he won last year’s race — and thus the championship — despite leading only the final three laps.

Johnson has had a below-average year. He has only three wins, and if he finishes the season with that total it will be his lowest in that category since he won twice in 2011 (a non-championship year).

PHOTOS: JIMMIE JOHNSON THROUGH THE YEARS

Illustrative of his issues this year was last week’s race at Martinsville Speedway, won by 2015 series champion Kyle Busch, who clinched a spot in the Homestead championship race. Johnson finished 12th last Sunday at a track where he has won nine times. He led only 24 laps after entering the race with a remarkable 2,838 laps led at Martinsville, his second-best track in that measurement behind the 3,105 he’s led at Dover International Speedway.

“We were just terrible all day,” Johnson said after the race.

Despite the issues, Johnson has history backing him as the playoffs roll into the final weeks. He’s won seven times at Texas and four times at Phoenix. He also could advance into the Final Four via points.

Barban says Johnson is steady and ready and remains much the same guy — except for an enhanced maturity level — who scored that first title in 2006.

“Is he different?” Barban repeated the question. “He just has a grayer beard. And he rides a bicycle now. I truly believe he hasn’t changed in personality. He’s gotten more appreciative of what’s happening. And he has a great life with his wife and kids. He’s done about the best you can in all of the categories.

“His personality is so much bigger than just wanting another championship. He’s such a humble individual that you really can’t tell that that is something on his mind. I’m sure he’s excited about it. He has to be, having been categorized in the group he’s in as being one of the greatest in the sport’s history.

“That’s undeniable, but he still is the most regular guy I’ve ever met.”

 A “regular” guy but one who could be his sport’s most decorated champion.