Jimmy Johnson stretches his record run of championships
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Only days before the Sprint Cup season opener at Daytona, Jimmie Johnson appeared puzzled that his dominance of stock-car racing was somehow considered bad for the sport.
He didn’t seem to care. He vowed to race every challenger — door-to-door, bumper-to-bumper — to maintain his vise-like grip on the championship.
After spotting Denny Hamlin 15 points entering Sunday’s season finale, Johnson reeled in Hamlin early during the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Hamlin fought back, but he was trapped coming off pit road during a late caution that put him a lap down with 24 laps to go.
Johnson, with his No. 48 Chevrolet running eight seconds clear of Hamlin on the final lap, roared across the finish line 1.6 seconds behind race winner Carl Edwards to capture his record fifth straight Cup championship.
“We showed what this team was made of,” Johnson said before collecting a $5.7 million check for winning the Chase. “At times, we didn’t have the most speed, but we had the biggest heart. I’m human, and I didn’t think we were invincible. But I knew if I gave it 100 percent we could sleep at night — and win the championship.”
Johnson, who won six times this season, couldn’t blink when Hamlin charged from behind midway through the race after spinning out on the 25th lap when he checked up alongside Greg Biffle in Turn 2. Only then did Johnson’s reign appear in jeopardy.
“We really didn’t talk about much on the radio, but I could see in the mirror where the guys were,” said Johnson, who became the first driver to overcome a points deficit in the last race to win the title. “When (Hamlin) got in front of me and was two spots in front of me, I thought, ‘Man, it’s going to be tough now.’ I expected them to be there, but we had a restart or two and we went forward and they went backward, and off it went.”
At times, Johnson wasn’t as dominant as in past seasons. Yet he and crew chief Chad Knaus outwitted their challengers, as the points standings changed nearly every lap.
“We didn’t pay attention to the points,” Knaus said. “We just had to get the car where it had to be.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick, who earned his 10th series championship, couldn’t take his eyes off the leaderboard.
“I thought we were done two or three times,” he said. “So, I sure paid attention to the points. Jimmie’s car came alive at the end. This race was so up and down all day long. It was like, who was going to screw up the mostâ¢ It’s so hard to win one of these deals, and for Jimmie to win five times in a row is unbelievable.”
Hamlin, who won a series-best eight races, finished a disappointing 14th — 39 points behind Johnson. Kevin Harvick overcame a late skirmish with Kyle Busch for a third-place finish in the race and the points.
Ultimately, Johnson overcame a mistake-prone pit crew — which Knaus dismissed eight races into the Chase in exchange for the crew of Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon. He rebounded from shaky Chase runs at New Hampshire and Texas.
Johnson and Knaus had the best race strategy, too. They didn’t take any unnecessary chances, and they didn’t panic when the No. 48 again was hurt by a couple of poor stops.
“It just looks like (Johnson) didn’t make any mistakes, and his car kept getting better,” said Edwards, who led 190 of 267 laps on the 1 1/2-mile oval. “All of us are trying to be that good. We all are witness to something that is truly spectacular.”
For the first time doing his championship reign, Johnson could feel the heat. But it didn’t take him long to flip the switch on Hamlin, whose pursuit of an elusive points title was stymied by an array of familiar miscues that doomed his previous four postseason runs.
“I knew we had a car that could contend for a win, and obviously when we got in that incident, it tore up the front and knocked the toe out and the car did not drive as well for the rest of the day,” he said.
And while Johnson appeared vulnerable this season, he will enter 2011 with expectations of winning a sixth consecutive championship. That would draw him closer to the only seven-time champions: Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
“You have to look back at what they’ve done,” said Harvick, whose title chances dimmed when he was penalized for speeding onto pit road while under caution on Lap 184. “There are a few chinks in the armor.
“There’s only one winner and a whole bunch of losers. There are a couple of seven-time winners ahead of (Johnson), so that puts it into perspective.”
By the numbers
Jimmie Johnson has won five titles in the fewest career races:
• Jimmie Johnson, 327
• Dale Earnhardt,390
• Richard Petty,654