It was hard to envision Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team fumbling away a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship on Sunday.
Entering the season finale in Homestead, Fla., the group that won five consecutive titles from 2006-10 held a comfortable 28-point cushion over Matt Kenseth in NASCAR’s Chase standings. In four of those championship seasons Johnson held serve with the points lead in the final race. In a fifth, he overcame a 15-point deficit in the final event to win “one for the thumb.”
In the Ford EcoBoost 400, Johnson’s Chad Knaus-led team — in typical workmanlike fashion — proved that when it controls its own destiny, may be the best the sport has seen. Having to finish 23rd or better to clinch the championship, Johnson and Knaus engineered a solid seventh-place finish and claimed title No. 6 for team owner Rick Hendrick’s No. 48 team.
“We were in position to win a lot throughout the course of the year,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, we gave a bunch away. But at the end of the day we won the big prize. That helped us through some of those races that got away — focusing on the big prize.
“We didn't leave many points on the table (in the Chase). I can look back on a few tracks and think we could have had a few more points, but it really was a strong 10 weeks. Last year we had eight great weeks and didn't come up with it. Matt had nine (this year). You have to have 10 great weeks to be the champion and we got it done this year.”
His chief rival, Kenseth, ran as sterling a race as one could. Having won the pole, he spent a large part of the South Florida afternoon leading the field, logging a race-high 144 laps on point. He could not follow through with the win — not that it would have mattered in the championship picture. Instead, that went to Kenseth’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Denny Hamlin, who was winless in 2013 prior to Sunday.
“Obviously it's been a great year, best year I've ever had,” Kenseth said of his first season with JGR. “It was a great night. Jimmie and that team are obviously 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.”
Johnson’s 48 and Kenseth’s 20 teams were the class of the field throughout the season, even if the standings didn’t always reflect it. The duo combined to win 13 of the 36 races beginning with the season’s opening event, the Daytona 500. In that race, Kenseth lost an engine while leading around the mid-point, which opened the door for Johnson to earn his second victory in the “Great American Race.” Kenseth answered two weeks later with a win in Las Vegas … and the race was on.
By the time the Chase began in September, the two were positioned atop the standings after NASCAR’s points reset. Kenseth drew first — and second — blood, with consecutive playoff wins in New Hampshire and Chicagoland. Predictably, Johnson returned with a victory volley in Dover.
Kenseth’s final statement came in Martinsville in Chase race No. 7. At one of Johnson’s best tracks, the No. 20 team out-pointed the 48 to tie the pair at the top of the standings in a performance many considered an upset. True to form, though, Johnson responded resoundingly, thoroughly dominating the next race in Texas.
It was in the season’s penultimate event where Kenseth finally stumbled. A crippling 23rd-place run in Phoenix, on an afternoon that found Johnson third, all but made the finale’s title tilt in Homestead a formality.
While Johnson did not lead a lap on Sunday, it was largely an incident-free affair for his team. Only a quirky restart that witnessed contact between the two point leaders gave anyone reason for pause. Though Johnson crunched a wheel well in the scramble, a caution period just laps later gave his crew the chance they needed to repair the minimal damage.
From there, it was simply counting down the laps — at which point, the comparisons began. Johnson’s sixth title finds him one short of the record seven earned by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. And while comparing and ranking competitors of different eras in any sport is largely an exercise in futility, that rarely stops the masses from doing so.
Johnson, a California native raised in a working-class family, has never quite known how to respond to the “all-time greats” inquiries. That didn’t change following yet another championship at NASCAR’s premier level.
“It's not like me to think in that light. It's just not me,” Johnson shrugged. “I guess I need to open my mind to it because the numbers speak for themselves. I find myself in a touchy situation at times where my quiet approach can be looked at as arrogant or cocky, and that is the furthest thing from the truth in what I'm trying to portray.
“Honestly, I'm just trying to, I don't know, say the right things and keep my mind in the right space. I haven't let a lot in and it's led to more success. It's kept my work ethic intact — kept me honest and humble. I like that about myself. I don't know if I want to open my mind and let it in, where I stand in the sports world. It's not time for that in my eyes.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t welcome a fun rivalry with a fellow great or two.
“Michael Jordan has given me a hard time that I only won five,” Johnson said with a broad smile. “I can't wait to send him a text and say, ‘Hey, buddy, I've caught up!’”
Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt. Michael Jordan. Jimmie Johnson. Maybe it’s simply within the company one’s name is mentioned that’s most telling. Regardless of rank, it’s rarified air.