Homestead, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - The "six pack" is off the ice and in the hands of Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team.
Johnson claimed his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship with a ninth-place finish in Sunday's season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He ended the season 19 points ahead of Matt Kenseth, who finished second, and 34 points ahead of Kevin Harvick, who placed 10th. They were the only drivers eligible for the title when the series came to this 1.5-mile South Florida racetrack.
Running among the top-10 for most of this 400-mile race, Johnson had a scare with 74 laps to go when after a restart he bumped into the back of Kenseth and sustained slight damage to his left-front fender amid a traffic jam, caused by Jeff Gordon's slow restart. Johnson dropped from eighth to 23rd, as there was concern of tire rub. He was guaranteed of clinching the championship with a finish of 23rd or better in this event.
Several laps after Johnson's mishap, a caution came when smoke plumed from the back of Paul Menard's car. Johnson pitted for new tires during the caution and then eventually climbed back into the top-10.
"I had contact from behind that pushed me up into the 20 (Kenseth), and both of us were out of control and sliding toward the outside fence at that point," Johnson said. "I didn't know what to think. They got us mired back in traffic and made the last 50 laps kind of interesting. We still had an awesome race car and got the job done. I'm just so happy to win this sixth championship."
Johnson is now only one title away from tying Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most championships in NASCAR's premier series. He ended the season with six wins, including two races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and 24 top-10 finishes. Johnson became the first driver in series history to win five consecutive titles (2006-10).
"I feel like those five years were a blur, and things happened so fast," he said. "It's not that I didn't enjoy it or appreciate it or didn't respect what happened. It just went by so fast, it seems like. I'm really going to slow things down here and enjoy it."
Chad Knaus, who has been Johnson's crew chief since his rookie season in 2002, is two titles away from tying Dale Inman for most crew chief championships in the series.
"A lot of effort went into this No. 48 car this season," Knaus said. "Everybody on the No. 48 team has dug in really deep. We had a whole lot of new players on our team this year, from engineers to mechanics to pit crew members, and everybody played a very important role into what it was we needed to do this year."
This is Rick Hendrick's 11th owner's championship in Cup, the most all-time. Hendrick Motorsports' 11 titles have come within the past 19 years in the series, putting the team's title-winning percentage during that span at 57.9.
"I always wanted to win one of these things, but I never thought we would win 11," Hendrick said. "I didn't want to get excited until tonight and until it was over. It's part of history, and I'm proud of our guys. For Jimmie to have six and us to have 11, it's hard to believe."
Denny Hamlin, who is Kenseth's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, won at Homestead. Hamlin scored his first victory of the season and the 23rd of his Sprint Cup career. His last win in the series came in September 2012 at New Hampshire (40 races ago).
Hamlin missed the Chase for the first time in his career after a serious back injury early in the season sidelined him for four races. He suffered a compression fracture in his lower back during an accident on the final lap of the March 24 race in Fontana, Calif. After his return, Hamlin struggled for the remainder of the season, posting just six top-10 finishes before his victory at Homestead. He won at this track for the first time in 2009.
"As bad as the year was, we can take a little solace in this finish," said Hamlin, who has won a race in each of his eight seasons in Sprint Cup. "We'll spend these next two months regrouping, getting our team back in order. I feel like there's no reason why we can't shoot out of the gates in 2014, like we did in 2010 after winning here in 2009. That was the point for us, when we won this race here in '09, confidence went through the roof. 2010 was a great season for us. Hopefully that repeats."
While Hamlin ran in front for a total of 72 laps, including the final 24, Kenseth, the pole sitter, led the most laps with 144. Kenseth, in his first season with JGR, scored a series-high seven wins, including the first two Chase races.
"It's been a great year, best year I've ever had," Kenseth said. "Had a great weekend, great night. I wanted to come up with a win. I'm really happy for Denny getting that win. If Jimmie would have got a flat (tire) or something that would have been okay there at the end too.
"On a serious note, Jimmie and that team are unbelievable. Never seen anything like this in the sport and probably will never see anything like it again. It's amazing with as tight as the rules are, multi-car teams, information sharing, and all that stuff. It's amazing they can figure out how to do that year after year."
Harvick made his last start with Richard Childress Racing before he moves over to Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2014 season. Last weekend, Harvick kept his championship hopes alive with a win at Phoenix. He had four victories this year.
"I'm happy with everything that we have been able to accomplish as a group," Harvick said. "We had a great year knowing what the circumstances were, and we have won a lot of races."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third, followed by Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer. Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano placed sixth through eighth, respectively.
Danica Patrick completed her rookie season in the series with a 20th-place finish, while Patrick's boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., finished two spot behind her in 22nd and clinched the rookie-of-the-year title.
"It means a lot, looking at all the other names that have won this award," said Stenhouse, who won the Nationwide Series championship in 2011 and '12 before his first full season in Cup. "I was proud of what we did throughout the season, of getting better, qualifying better, having runs up front, leading laps throughout this year."
The last race of the season had a frightening moment when Menard's car caught on fire and then his right-rear tire exploded while he was parked on pit road. Sparks were flying underneath his car after the tire went flat while on the track. His crew was attempting to extinguish the flames when wheel exploded. There were no injuries.
"That was really wild," Menard said. "I really didn't know about the fire until there were some sparks coming in the car and landed on the window net. I thought that was kind of weird. A lap later, the car is on fire. I lost my brakes, and then the wheel blew right off."