One for the Thumb
Jimmie Johnson continued a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series legacy defined by consistency by locking down his fifth consecutive overall championship with a second-place 400-mile Homestead-Miami race finish.
The 35-year-old from El Cajon, Calif., opened this season's 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup with a 25th-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sept. 19, but rebounded to complete the nine-race stretch that followed with a victory and total of seven top-five and nine top-10 finishes.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver entered the 36th and final series race of the season second in the standings. He trailed Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin by 15 points and led third-place title hopeful and Richard Childress Racing competitor Kevin Harvick by 31 points.
Johnson's No. 48 car raced strong throughout the 267-lap Homestead-Miami event, led only once on Lap 71, found clean air following a Lap 250 restart and became this season's championship machine by finishing one slot behind the winning No. 99 car of Carl Edwards, one spot ahead of Harvick's No. 29 and 12 positions in front of Hamlin's No. 11.
"I could see in the mirror where Kevin was and where the No. 11 was. When the No.11 got two spots in front of me, I thought, 'Man, it's going to be tough now.' I expected them to be there. We had a restart or two, we went forward, they went backward, it (the No. 48 car) went and we came in second. I was after it pretty hard. (Crew Chief) Chad (Knaus) told me with about 10 laps to go to be sure we were smart and to save our tires in case there was a green-white-checkered finish.
"This car was awesome when it was upfront and had clean air. We knew if we ever got up there, we'd stay there and it really worked out. I definitely backed off a little bit at the end. I don't think I had anything for the No. 99," Johnson said.
He found himself in a state of disbelief once he raced underneath the checkered flag and learned he earned his fifth championship in his ninth series season.
"I'm so proud to be in this position and so thankful to have my great race team and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports giving me great racecars. We made it through, gave 100 percent every race and showed what teamwork is all about. At times we didn't have the most speed, but we had the most heart. We proved it to the end of the Chase and especially here.
"We're really taken back. This was a tough Chase, a competitive Chase. Without a doubt, this is the biggest day of my career. To win five in a row, especially with the way things unfolded, the pressure from the No. 11 and the No. 29 and how great those teams are, it's the best day of my professional career. I take so much pride in what we've been able to do as an organization," Johnson said.
Trouble began brewing for Hamlin on Lap 24 when his No. 11 car slid through the backstretch grass after making contact with Greg Biffle's No. 16. Hamlin fought loose conditions from that point on and was unable to realistically challenge for a victory that would deliver his first series championship.
He finishes the season second in the standings and 39 points behind Johnson after collecting a series-best eight victories, 14 top-five and 18 top-10 finishes.
"I'm disappointed. Our car was lightning fast up until that wreck. When we hit the No. 16, it knocked the toe out and the car just didn't drive the same the rest of the day. We did our best to try to repair it, but it just wasn't as fast as it was before. We were running around the top 10 when that happened so it was just circumstances.
"We had a great year. We won the most races we've ever won and contended like we've never contended before. Just circumstances took us out on this last one," Hamlin said.
He is optimistic about his chances of contending for next season's title after posting his best championship finish in five full series seasons. "I didn't think (the No. 48) showed the strength they did in years past and that opened the door for teams like mine and a few others to win a lot of races. We really stepped up our program these last couple years and, with all the wins we've had, it's a good feeling to go to the racetrack and know you can win on any given week. "My job is to work in the offseason to do everything I can to be better. I know every year that I'm in the Cup series I'm going to be better than I was the previous year. We're going to take this team, keep working and go get 'em next year," he added.
Harvick displayed championship form when he rebounded from a Lap 80 pit road speeding penalty that knocked him from the race lead to the 29th spot in the field to take his 16th top-five and 26th top-10 finish of the season.
He is proud of the way his team propelled his car into championship contention following its 19th-place 2009 championship showing in which it registered just five top-five and a total of nine top-10 finishes.
"We went down swinging. We came here to go as fast as we could and do everything we had to do to try to win. Those guys (No. 48 team) just outran us that last restart by just a little bit at the beginning and then it'd taper off and we'd come back to being a little bit better.
"All in all, I'm proud of all my guys, everybody at RCR and what they've done from last year to this year. We did everything we wanted to do today except win the race. This is a great spot to start building for a consistent championship run moving forward," Harvick said.
Edwards led the Homestead-Miami event a race-high 10 times for a total of a race-best 190 laps. His No. 99 Roush Fenway machine crossed the finish line 1.608 seconds ahead of Johnson with its second straight and second overall victory of the season. Edwards closes out the season fourth in the series standings with a total of nine top-five and 19 top-10 finishes.
"If you'd have told me 10 races into the season that this is how we were going to wrap this thing up, I wouldn't have believed you. This is beyond the comeback I expected and hoped for.
"I feel a lot better going into 2011 than I did going into 2009 (after winning three of the final four races of the 2008 season) because we have a lot of momentum and a new engine that just keeps getting better. This is the best performance on a straightaway I've had in a long time. We have a lot good things going and I can't tell you how much this means to finish a season like this, it's spectacular for us," he said.
He said his late-season progress will help the No. 99 team emerge as a stronger candidate to knock the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 off its championship perch.
"Our slope, our gain is a little steeper (than the No. 48 team's) right now. The question is whether we can keep that going.
"On average, they've been better than everyone else. They've proven that. We've been better at times, others have been better at times, but when I look at all the parameters and where we're headed, I feel we're making very good progress and making our slope steeper than theirs," he added.
Richard Petty Enterprises drivers Aric Almirola and A.J. Allmendinger completed the Homestead-Miami race top five with respective fourth- and fifth-place finishes.
The 2011 season, our first on the Sprint Cup Series schedule, opens Feb. 20 at Daytona International Speedway. The series visits our soon-to-be 104,000 capacity venue on July 9. Six-race, two-weekend season ticket plans are available now through the tickets page of this Web site.
Story by Mike Schmaltz