In the greatest performance of his career, Jimmie Johnson ended a Chase to remember by coming from behind in Miami to win a fifth straight championship
He stood inside the number 48 hauler that was parked in the garage at Homestead-Miami Speedway, staring through the mirrored doors at the gathering crowd outside and, 50 yards beyond, at his race car that sat silent in stall number 24C. It was last Saturday afternoon, and, for Jimmie Johnson, the opportunity to cement his status as NASCAR's most dominant driver of this century—strike that, of any century—was only 24 hours away.
He glanced at a plaque that hung on a wall in the hauler—the team's track headquarters—memorializing the words of Vince Lombardi: WINNING IS NOT A SOMETIME THING; IT'S AN ALL THE TIME THING. He joked with his team owner, Rick Hendrick, coolly telling him not to worry over the fact that he trailed Denny Hamlin by 15 points in the standings, and assuring him that he had everything under control. He chatted briefly with his crew chief, Chad Knaus, discussing their goals for the final practice of the season, now minutes away. Then, before he headed out into the bright and breezy South Florida day, Johnson, reveling in the thrill of all that was possible out there on that sun-baked asphalt track, tried to put the moment into perspective.
"This is going to be the biggest race of my life," said the 35-year-old driver. "This Chase has been a dogfight. But when everything is on the line, I like our chances. This is why I race. I love this—just love the chance to prove something. I can't tell you why, but I'm really, really confident."
We can tell you why: No one who has ever slid behind the wheel of a stock car—not Richard Petty, not David Pearson, not Dale Earnhardt Sr.—has consistently performed at his best when it matters most like Jimmie Kenneth Johnson, the greatest closer in NASCAR's 62-year history. He did it again on Sunday, overcoming a points deficit in the final race for the first time in his title run, to win his unprecedented fifth straight Sprint Cup championship. This Chase was radically different from the previous four for Johnson; this time he captured the Cup in spite of having neither the fastest car nor the quickest pit crew. This time he raised the Cup at Homestead because of one reason and one person: himself.
How close was this year's championship? With 100 laps to go on Homestead's 1.5-mile oval in the Ford 400, Johnson trailed Hamlin in the standings by seven points. Johnson had just endured yet another slow pit stop under the yellow caution flag, falling from seventh position in the race to 13th. Hamlin, who needed only to stay on Johnson's rear bumper to win the title, was right behind him in 14th. As the cars slowly circled the track under the yellow flag, Hendrick, nervously watching from the pits, buried his face in his hands; he thought the end of their epic run was near. "I honestly didn't like our chances right then," the owner said after the race. "I guess I did what everyone else has done: underestimate Jimmie."
Over the last 150 miles of the race Johnson was flawless, running on both the high line and the low line, passing one car after another. Watching Johnson turn those laps was an experience akin to witnessing an Olympic skater turn in a perfect performance to win gold. At 180 mph Johnson controlled his car as if it were an extension of his body, hitting his every turning mark through the corners, twisting the wheel just so to weave through traffic. Perhaps most impressively, he eased off the gas pedal several times as he moved through the field in order to avoid the perils of running three-wide on the track. Johnson's mind always has been his greatest asset, and his care in keeping his car out of harm's way ultimately was the difference, because Hamlin was unable to do the same.
With 42 laps left, as Johnson calmly maneuvered into second place behind eventual race winner Carl Edwards, Hamlin began to fade. Early in the race, with his emotions in a fever, the 30-year-old Hamlin had driven every lap as though he were in a drag race. He moved from 37th—his starting position—to 23rd in just 15 laps. He appeared to have the fastest, smoothest-handling car on the track. But then, in an eyeblink, a year's worth of work was smashed when he collided with Greg Biffle, who was driving inside of Paul Menard, on Lap 24. Hamlin was attempting to pass down low when his car slid to the outside as the trio charged off Turn 2. No one was at fault in the accident; Biffle, with Menard to his right, and Hamlin merely ran out of space. But Hamlin never should have been so aggressive so early and attempted a pass inside of two cars already running side-by-side. His number 11 Camry sustained severe damage to its right front fender, and no matter what adjustments crew chief Mike Ford made during pit stops, the car was never as fast as it had been at the start. "Our car was banged up bad," said Hamlin, who became the first driver in Chase history to fail to win the championship after holding the points lead going into the final race. "We just could not overcome that."
So as Hamlin struggled through the final laps in 14th place on Sunday, Johnson cruised around the track like a man on a leisurely ocean-side drive. He finished second behind Edwards, beating Hamlin in the final standings by 39 points and Kevin Harvick, who finished the race in third, by 41. "They didn't make any mistakes today," said Edwards of Johnson and Knaus. "They steadily made their car better and let the other guys make mistakes. If you really look from the 10,000-foot view, that is probably what they do best."
When drivers such as Edwards talk about Johnson, they do so with a mixture of awe and bewilderment: It's easy to pinpoint what Johnson does well, but it's damn hard to replicate it. How complete has his domination of the Cup series been? Since 2006 Johnson has taken 35 checkered flags; the driver with the second-most victories over that span, Kyle Busch, has only 17 W's. During his title binge Johnson also has racked up more top five finishes (81) and top 10s (117) than any other driver. "Jimmie may just be the best there's ever been," says Bobby Allison, the 1983 Cup champion, who won 84 races, tied for third most alltime. "He has no weaknesses. He's just so smooth on the track, like he's not even trying. Nothing fazes him."
Yet this season the road to the title was as bumpy as it's ever been for Johnson and his team. After NASCAR replaced the rear wing on its stock cars with a spoiler on March 28 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Johnson often looked lost on the track. The spoiler—a 4-by-64½-inch aluminum blade pitched at a 70-degree angle—fundamentally changed the Cup car's aerodynamics and handling characteristics. Johnson and Knaus had dominated the Wing era, winning 22 of 98 races, but they were slow to adapt to the spoiler.
"We got behind on the spoiler, and that hurt us bad," Hendrick says. "It turned out that all of our engineering work we had done to prepare for the spoiler was off. So we had to go back to the drawing board in the middle of the season. And once you fall behind even a little in this sport, it's hard to catch back up. Gibbs got an advantage on us." Indeed, no team spent more time in the wind tunnel preparing its cars for the spoiler than Joe Gibbs Racing, which proved to be a game changer for Hamlin, Gibbs's marquee driver. After the spoiler was introduced—he won that race at Martinsville last March—Hamlin consistently flashed more raw speed than anyone in the series.
"We struggled over the summer, and we just didn't have the speed that we had in past years," says Johnson, who over a seven-race stretch in July and August finished 22nd or worse five times. "We were more vulnerable heading into this Chase than the last four."
The shortcomings of the number 48 team were most obvious at Texas on Nov. 7. Midway through the race, after Jeff Burton wrecked Jeff Gordon, Johnson's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, Knaus made a move that was both bold and desperate: He benched his pit crew. Frustrated by chronically slow stops—Johnson had been losing spots on pit road for over two months—Knaus told his crew to step aside and installed Gordon's number 24 crew in its place. Knaus made the switch permanent the next day, and in the end it paid off; in the final pit stop of the season at Homestead, Johnson's new crew delivered, beating Hamlin's off pit row by more than a second. "It was embarrassing that I couldn't get our pit crew up to speed," Knaus says, "but the switch was something we had to do."
The key moment of the Chase actually came the following week at Phoenix in the penultimate race of the season. Hamlin had won at Texas (Johnson finished ninth) to increase his lead in the standings to 33 points, and he easily motored to the front of the field in the Arizona desert. Midway through the race, with Johnson running seventh, Hamlin was up more than 100 points. At that moment he and his number 11 crew had their collective boots on the throats of Johnson's team. All Hamlin had to do was hold on and he would be able to coast to the title at Homestead. But after Johnson pitted with 88 laps to go, Knaus told his driver to conserve gas, believing Johnson could finish the race without taking more fuel. Mike Ford, Hamlin's crew chief, gave no such instructions, and Hamlin had to pit 14 laps from the finish. Johnson reached the line on fumes and came in fifth; Hamlin wound up 12th, his points lead cut to 15. Incensed, he punched his dashboard so hard, he bloodied the knuckles on his right hand.
"That was the turning point," Knaus says. "They had us beat, but we outraced them in Phoenix. Sometimes that's hard to swallow and can hurt you going forward. And Phoenix revived Jimmie. It gave him his spark back."
It also set up the closest final-race battle for points of the Chase era, which began in 2004. "This Chase has featured the best racing in the history of our sport," says veteran Michael Waltrip. "All of the Chase races were wild." Adds Tony Stewart, "This is as good as racing gets. If you don't like it and you're a fan, then you're not paying attention."
That, as it turned out, was the problem. In spite of the compelling duel between Johnson and Hamlin over the final six, TV ratings were down from 2009 in every Chase race—in some cases as much as 20%—and attendance dipped in eight of the final 10 races. NASCAR officials offer many explanations for the decline: that the standard start time of races at 1 p.m. EST this season put NASCAR's postseason head-to-head with the NFL; that it will take time for fans to appreciate the high quality of the racing; and that, according to NASCAR chairman Brian France, "some drivers resonate throughout history different than others, better than others," which is one way of saying that Johnson hasn't connected with the sport's blue-collar fans.
So what can be done to give NASCAR the adrenaline shot it seems to need? According to multiple sources in the Cup garage, the organization is leaning toward overhauling the Chase next season. One idea being considered is an elimination-style format—a scenario that appears to have support inside NASCAR's Daytona Beach headquarters would have 15 drivers in a 10-race postseason, with the bottom-five drivers in the Chase being eliminated after five and eight races. This would set up a two-race sprint for the title between the five remaining drivers. A touch gimmicky? Perhaps, but it would virtually guarantee the sort of "Game 7 moments" that France repeatedly has said he desires.
Johnson thrives in such moments, and he's now taking dead aim on NASCAR's most hallowed record: seven championships, which is how many Petty and Earnhardt both won. Johnson is on a record-shattering pace; he's won his five titles in just 327 career Cup races. Earnhardt needed 390 races to win five, Petty 655. What's scary for the rest of the sport is that Johnson and his number 48 team should be even better in 2011, after an entire off-season in which to find more speed and fix their pit-crew woes. Hendrick has the richest organization in NASCAR, so Johnson and Knaus can devote an abundance of resources to solving these problems.
Johnson knows he's closing on an achievement that seemed unimaginable five years ago. More than three hours after his crew began calling him Five Timer, he walked along the frontstretch, only feet from where he crossed the finish line. It was dark and quiet, but in the distance he could see, sitting under a bank of lights in the infield, five twinkling Sprint Cup trophies. "For the first time seven seems like a number that could be attained," Johnson said softly. "But just because we have five doesn't mean we'll automatically get there. Sports don't work that way. We're going to work, because we're still hungry."
Johnson then hurried into the night to begin his celebration. Soon enough, he will be back at work. And it's hard not to believe he won't be back at Homestead to celebrate again next year. And the year after that.
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HOW CLOSE WAS THIS YEAR'S CHAMPIONSHIP? WITH 100 LAPS TO GO ON SUNDAY, JOHNSON TRAILED HAMLIN BY SEVEN POINTS.
"THEY HAD US BEAT, BUT WE OUTRACED THEM IN PHOENIX," SAYS KNAUS OF HAMLIN'S TEAM. "PHOENIX REVIVED JIMMIE. IT GAVE HIM HIS SPARK BACK."
Photograph by FRED VUICH
CHECKERS AND CHAMPAGNE After securing the Cup with a second-place run, 12 spots ahead of Hamlin, Johnson (left) showered his crew with bubbly.
[See caption above]
HOME TEAM Johnson celebrated with wife Chandra and daughter Genevieve, 4 months.
MAN AT THE TOP Knaus's bold fuel gamble one week earlier got Johnson within striking distance at Homestead.