Johnson wins unprecedented fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship
by Matt Taliaferro
Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s team continue to build on the most dominating streak in NASCAR history.
Johnson’s second-place finish, combined with Kevin Harvick’s third and Denny Hamlin’s 14th, propelled him to a record fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And this one may have been the most impressive yet.
Johnson entered the Ford 400 a slim 15 points behind Hamlin in the championship standings. And thanks to a sixth-place qualifying run, Johnson was able to survive two slow pit stops to hang in the top 10 throughout the race. In fact, Friday’s qualifying efforts played a major, if not overlooked, role. With Harvick starting 28th and Hamlin 37th, the two were placed in a points hole from which neither could climb out.
Hamlin did himself no favors once the green fell, either. His day was wrought with mistakes, the most costly being a lap 24 spin that damaged his front splitter and knocked the toe out. He battled a perpetually loose condition for the remainder of the afternoon, cracking the top 10 briefly, but never mounting a charge to the top 5.
Harvick, who entered the race a daunting 46 points out of the Chase lead, staged a more serious threat to Johnson. While never able to consistently run in the top three, Harvick was a fifth- to ninth-place challenger. But as the race drew to its conclusion, Harvick’s aggression spiked, as he spun Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, and got nabbed for speeding on pit road.
The Harvick/Busch incident occurred while green flag stops cycled through, and briefly trapped Hamlin one lap down. It led to a testy exchange between the two in the media center after the race.
"I thought it was over when the 18 wrecked, for sure," Hamlin said. "That trapped us a lap down. The 29 and the 48 were actually just a straightaway ahead, but the way it timed out to when that caution fell, it trapped us a lap down, and so they stayed out and the cars at the back all came and got tires, so it separated us. What was a straightaway turned into 15 spots when that caution flew, and that really hurt us quite a bit."
"As far as the 18 incident, he raced me like a clown all day," Harvick explained. "Three-wide, on the back bumper, running into me — and I just had enough."
"Sounds like [how] your teammates raced me all day," Hamlin countered.
"I just parked yours," Harvick shrugged.
All the while, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus calmly went about their business, making up positions lost on pit road and staying clear of any on-track predicaments. And as the laps clicked off — 30 to go, 20, 10 — the duo exhibited the poise that has been the hallmark of their five-year dynasty.
With Carl Edwards clearly in control of the race, Johnson simply cruised in second, never placing the car in a compromising position or seriously mounting a charge to take the lead, much like the last four years when Johnson did just enough at Homestead to capture the title. When the checkers waved, Johnson sat 39 points in front of Hamlin, and 41 up on Harvick.
"We did everything we could all year long, especially in the Chase," Johnson said. "And we had two teams right on our heels. I would say it was one of the more difficult Chases for us speed-wise. So the heart that it took to win this and the tough decisions we had to make at night, on Saturday nights typically going into a race on Sunday; I'm proud of how we dug our heels in and made it happen.
"Even with a ton of pressure and all of the things going on. I mean, we had to make a stand, and I'm proud that we stood up as a unit and did it."
As for an unprecedented sixth championship? The man viewed as the steward of the 48’s five titles, Knaus, has already gotten to work on that.
"The 2010 season ended two hours ago," he said after the victory celebration. "And the 2011 season began two hours ago."
That doesn’t bode well for the competition.
Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattTaliaferro