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NASCAR Countdown: 1 Final Time For The G.O.A.T.

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USA TODAY Sports

NASCAR Countdown: 1 Final Time For The G.O.A.T.

NBC Sports Washington is counting down big NASCAR moments leading up to the Daytona 500. Be sure to check out our other coverage below.

We’ve hit on a lot in this countdown. From the best Daytona 500 finishes, to silly season moves, to Hall of Famers and everything in between.

But with one day remaining until the Great American Race, this day is reserved for one specific driver who happens to be hanging up his full-time driving helmet at the end of the season.

The greatest NASCAR driver of all-time: Jimmie Johnson.

When Jeff Gordon told Rick Hendrick to hire Jimmie Johnson, it’s safe to say he didn’t expect the then mid-20s California kid to surpass his success in the Cup Series. But right off the bat, he showed signs he had it.

It took Johnson 10 races to reach Victory Lane, albeit at his home track of Auto Club Speedway. And then three races later, his first of a NASCAR record 11 wins at Dover International Speedway. The baby-faced California kid was no longer a dirt motorbike racer on two-wheels. He was a full-fledged stock car driver.

He finished fifth in the championship standings his rookie year, but didn’t even win the Rookie of the Year award thanks to Ryan Newman’s stellar campaign. Three more wins in 2003 and a second-place finish in the standings, a whopping eight checkered flags in 2004 and another runner-up finish. He had arrived. He was “big time.” The championships were coming.

After four more wins and another fifth-place finish in 2005, the dominance began. He and crew chief Chad Knaus. 2006: a championship...and 2007, 2008...2009 and 2010. Fives titles in a row, eclipsing Cale Yarborough’s then-record of three consecutive titles.

NASCAR doesn’t get as much attention as the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB. But any sports fan can appreciate dominance when they see it. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick didn’t win five straight. Neither did Shaq and Kobe. It’s the most impressive feat by a team in the modern era of sports. 

After two years of failing to win it all, he returned to championship form, winning his sixth in 2013. NASCAR then again changed the championship format to go to a winner-take-all, championship four style format. And after another two-year break, Johnson did it again.

His record-tying seventh title came in 2016, using his patented passing skills to get by Kyle Larson on a late-race restart to claim his first career win at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a track that had crowned him champion six times, but had never given him the “race winner” title.

His quest to defend the title in 2017 was a tough one. Although he won three times, he finished 10th in the standings, only the third time in his career he’d finished 10th or worse

In recent years, his performance has been lackluster to put it lightly. No wins for the first time ever in 2018, and a missed playoff appearance for the first time ever in 2019. Johnson has gone almost two calendar years without winning a points-paying race.

Sure, age has something to do with it. But his team (Hendrick Motorsports) hasn’t kept up with the times, either. They, along with Chevrolet as a manufacturer, have fallen behind Toyota and Ford in recent years. Performance across the board has suffered.

This past offseason, Johnson announced 2020 would be his final year racing full-time in the Cup Series. Some people blamed his performance as a factor, some blamed age.

I’d chalk it up to a little bit of both. But I’m going to watch Johnson’s 2020 season through the lens of appreciation. It’s not often that you get to live through an era where the best to ever do it competes. Right in front of your eyes.

That’s what we’ve gotten to see from Jimmie Johnson.

Here's the bottom line: NASCAR literally changed the generation of stock cars the field ran three separate times and changed the playoff field three times along the way.

Regardless, Johnson and Knaus continued winning no matter.

After winning his seventh title, the hashtag “#Chasing8” was a rallying cry for Johnson supporters on social media. But after his announcement, he decided to change that hashtag to something a little more sentimental.

“#OneFinalTime”

So when Johnson likely competes in his last Daytona 500, and races at Las Vegas, Atlanta, Dover, leads his final laps, perhaps wins his final race, takes his final checkered flag, the list goes on: appreciate it. Because there’ll never be another Jimmie Johnson.

He’s one of a kind.

MORE NASCAR NEWS:

In the Loop: Peyton Manning crashes an online class, the Tebows get three new puppies

In the Loop: Peyton Manning crashes an online class, the Tebows get three new puppies

First up, most college classes have been converted to online group lectures and this University of Tennessee communications class had an extra student jump on their call. Proud Volunteer alum Peyton Manning shared some words of encouragement! The students were stunned and one girl even threw her professor under the bus for not warning them to put on makeup and look more presentable for this class.  

Next up, Tim Tebow and his wife Demi welcome not just one, not two, but three puppies to their family. Meet the Tebow Pack! I would love to be a fly on the wall in that household with all those puppies.  

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Happy family. Meet @thetebowpack

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...But Paris needed a brother. Meet Kobe!

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Finally, the sports world fell in love with the Still family years ago when former NFL defensive end Devon Still shared the story of his precious daughter, Leah, battling cancer. Leah is now five years cancer-free and celebrated with a steakhouse dinner at home. That spread looks delicious and she deserves every bit of that. Leah is an inspiration and the true definition of strength! 

What happened in Netflix's Tiger King, Episode One

What happened in Netflix's Tiger King, Episode One

Netflix's seven-episode documentary, Tiger King, follows the life of a man who calls himself Joe Exotic. Not only does he own over 200 big cats on his private zoo in Oklahoma, but he is also accused of being involved in a murder-for-hire plot. The series has animal rights activists, a true-crime plot and some wild characters (pun intended). Lucky for you, we are recapping each episode.  

Episode 1: Not Your Average Joe

"Monkey people are a little different... big cat people are backstabbing pieces of [expletive]." 

We are introduced to Joe Screibvogel aka Joe Exotic via a phone call from The Grady County Jail. Accused of involvement in a murder-for-hire plot against a well-known animal rights activist, he is being threatened with the 79-year sentence. 

No story ever starts with a man in jail. This story spans years and years of feuding, way before Netflix decided to ask, "what is going on with people keeping big cats in this country?" back in 2014.

A man with a mullet, eyebrow ring and a baby tiger in hand appears on the screen. This is Joe Exotic. 

He began building Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park (G.W. Zoo)  in 1999 and is now home to almost 200 big cats and other exotic animals. His staff, described as a family of misfits, is introduced to us one by one. 

There is Erik, John aka "Rink", and Kelci aka "Saff". Each member of this "family" seems to have two things in common: They came to G.W. Zoo in need of a place to belong and unwavering love for these cats. 

Note: It is illegal to keep big cats and other exotic animals as pets in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. So, don't get any ideas. 

The love Joe Exotic has for these cats is very apparent. He believes that people will protect what directly affects them. So, if you hold a baby tiger and look it in the eyes, how could you not feel the need to save the rainforest? 

He hosts a live stream each night on Joe Exotic TV to talk about two things, his love for his cats and his hatred for Carole Baskin. 

Baskin, a flower-crown wearing animal rights activist and owner of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, has a mission to save animals that are bred to be kept in cages, like the ones at the G.W. Zoo. 

Their feud began in 2006, we learn. Joe Exotic was traveling around to shopping malls showing off his animals. Carole would email (and encourage others) to reach out to the owners of the malls to refuse his traveling show. The malls would become overwhelmed with emails that Joe and is show would get banned. And thus, the cycle continued. 

This feud, however, involved more than just the two of them. PETA was on Carol's side and a man named Doc Antle, a fellow private zoo owner was on Joe's.

Doc Antle owns and operates a private exotic zoo in Myrtle Beach, SC. His animals have been featured in movies such as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dr. Doolittle, and The Jungle Book. 

Like Joe, he too just loves his cats and wants to keep his zoo out of the hands of people like Carole. And it seems, Joe will do it by any means necessary. 

"This is my little town," he says of the zoo. "I'm the mayor, the prosecutor, the cop and the executioner."

Joe and Doc seem to believe that Carole is worse than them. She is profiting off of her cats while "brainwashing" others to believe that they are hurting their cats. 

"People who really love animals are rarely ruthless," Doc explained that is exactly what Carole is, ruthless. 

Note: I don't want to give anything away... but in future episodes, we really get a definition of the word ruthless. 

Episode one ends with a flash-forward to the phone call from Grady County Jail. "Before this is over... I will shut everybody down," Joe Exotic warns. Even after one episode, it's clear that Joe Exotic is not messing around.