DOVER, Del. — Jimmie Johnson had won 10 times at Dover International Speedway prior to Sunday, so maybe he had a right to wear a helmet that could be viewed as a little presumptuous.
He wore a tribute helmet to Cale Yarborough all weekend, a tribute to Johnson’s favorite driver as a kid and the one who sits sixth in the NASCAR Cup all-time win chart. Oh, and also the driver that Johnson would tie with his next Cup victory.
Now he might not ever wear the helmet again.
Johnson needed a late caution to catch up to Kyle Larson and then needed a great restart to pass Larson and then a wreck behind him to bring out the caution to secure his 83rd career win on Sunday, as he took the AAA 400 checkered flag.
He certainly didn’t dominate — Larson led 241 laps, Martin Truex Jr. led 102 and Johnson led only seven — but he took advantage of the opportunity and was the best for the handful of seconds that mattered.
He wore the helmet and fulfilled the prophecy, although he’ll swear that it wasn’t meant that way, that helmet designer Jason Beam just got him the helmet this week.
“It was time for a new helmet,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to increase our inventory of our helmets, and we had one coming in this weekend, and my helmet painter and I discussed doing a tribute helmet … to honor Cale Yarborough, to help younger fans know the name, know the face.
“It’s something that’s been in the works. It’s been underway for a few weeks being painted, and it just arrived here this weekend.”
Johnson sits just one win behind Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison on the list of all-time victories, meaning he’s just two wins out from being fourth on the list, behind Richard Petty (200), David Pearson (105) and Jeff Gordon (93).
For Johnson, matching Yarborough was special. While different in personality, they seemed to have a similar will to win. Johnson joked that he used to go to Hardee’s (Yarborough’s sponsor) as a kid thinking he would see Yarborough.
“To remember that old, dirty couch I was sitting on in El Cajon, California, with my parents — we didn’t want to turn the AC on because it cost too much — sweating out in 100-whatever-degree heat … and pulling for that 28 [of Yarborough], to tie him is just mind blowing,” Johnson said.
“I was very fortunate to have a similar experience when I tied him with the three consecutive championships, and he surprised me at the banquet [in 2008]. But to tie him at 83 wins, I swear to you, I only dreamed of winning a race.”
This wasn’t the first time that Johnson brought a helmet that had people wondering if he assumed too much. He wore a helmet that had photos of Dale Earnhardt and Petty for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway last year. On that day, he needed a little bit of good fortune to capture his seventh championship, tying Earnhardt and Petty.
He certainly had the good fortune on Sunday. He started at the rear of the field because of a gear change. He had no shot of catching Larson at the end, until a David Ragan crash. And he might not have been able to hold him off if there wasn’t another crash just after they had passed the overtime line that kept the race from being restarted.
“Jimmie is the best of our time, probably the best of all time,” Larson said. “He just has, obviously, a lot more experience than I do out on the front row late in races and executed a lot better than I did.
“I’ve got to get better at that and maybe get some more wins.”
Johnson, with three wins this year, eyes more championships and more wins. Certainly, he will have more chances at Dover, a place where his 11 victories puts him in the company of Waltrip and Petty as the only three drivers who have won at least 11 races at a single track.
Frankly, if there is any track at which Johnson should set records, it should be Dover, where he has had his most prolific success.
Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick had no problem with Johnson’s helmet choice.
“I was more concerned about whether I could get the helmet,” Hendrick said.
Hendrick also remembers his time watching races where Yarborough would win. One of Yarborough’s greatest strengths was his ability to win at a variety of tracks: He won nine races at the short track of Bristol, nine at the superspeedway of Daytona and a combined 15 on the intermediate downforce tracks of Michigan and Atlanta.
“I watched Cale ‑‑ he was one of the toughest, hardest racers that I ever watched race, fearless, and drove the car over the edge — and Jimmie does the same thing, but Jimmie makes it look smooth,” Hendrick said.
“I guess I like [Bill] Parcells’ quote: ‘You are what your record says you are.’ The way I remember Cale, they’re a little bit different in their approach, but their record is the same.”
Johnson now faces a dilemma. He needs a new helmet.
“I really anticipated wearing it more than one race,” Johnson said. “I’m not prepared for what my next plan is, necessarily, so I might wear this helmet for a few more weeks; but it’s just a great opportunity — a great opportunity for me to honor Cale.
“Drivers have always used their helmets as their voice and a way to honor someone or send a message, their own personality. There’s always been a lot of freedom with the driver’s helmet, and I think it’s just really been a neat opportunity for me to honor Dale and Richard and now Cale.”