Johnson gives us a masterpiece
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Extraordinary! With a dominant, daring performance in the last five races of the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup, Jimmie Johnson won his second straight championship. He finished the Chase 77 points ahead of Hendrick Motorsport...
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Extraordinary!
With a dominant, daring performance in the last five races of the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup, Jimmie Johnson won his second straight championship.
He finished the Chase 77 points ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who, frankly, underestimated the ability of Johnson's No. 48 team to go for broke in the final five races.
With a 68-point lead after his second straight Chase win, at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Gordon thought consistency would win the championship. Accordingly, the four-time champion was remarkably consistent, posting an average finish of 5.1 during the Chase.
In any other year, that probably would have been enough -- but not this year. Johnson didn't just beat his teammate in the last five races; he snatched the championship with brute force, winning four straight events to set up Sunday's clincher at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he finished a comfortable seventh.
That's not to say there wasn't tension at Homestead. It had nothing to do with the performance of Johnson's car or team, both of which were as solid as Gibraltar. Several times during the race, however, the No. 48 Chevy was mired in traffic, where the pinball effect of another driver's mistake could have changed the complexion of the championship.
There would have been no justice in that. A random accident at Homestead would have been a blot on a surgical, artistic and powerful run through the Chase -- a moustache on Johnson's Mona Lisa.
In winning the title the way he did, Johnson set a new standard. Before the dust settled at Homestead, Gordon already was rethinking his approach.
"Trust me, I know everything that's in that 48 car," Gordon said Sunday night. "I know how he drives it and everything else. I watch Jimmie on the track, and I'll be honest, I really thought that as aggressive as they were being, it was going to bite them.
"And I guess I was just a little bit too confident in the whole consistency thing. I thought, 'That's all right, let's let them go do that and see what happens.'
"And, man, if they didn't pull it off. So that's just how good they are. So, going forward, we recognize that we're going to have to push it a little bit harder in the set-up and get a little more aggressive with the set-up as well. We've got to have faster racecars."
If Johnson's second championship didn't include the drama of a five- or six-way battle for the title in the final race, ultimately it will be good for the competitive level of the sport. There's nothing like a good butt-kicking to inspire other teams in the Cup garage to accelerate their development of the Car of Tomorrow, the only car the series will use next year.
In a larger sense, Johnson is making history, though he is still too close to the action to comprehend the magnitude of his accomplishments. It's almost as if Johnson woke up one morning in January 2002, after a relatively undistinguished and brief career in the Busch Series, and said to himself, "I AM Tiger Woods."
As a rookie in 2002, Johnson won the pole for the Daytona 500 and went on to post three victories that season. In winning his first title in 2006, he completed an unprecedented NASCAR "Grand Slam," winning the Daytona 500, the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, the Nextel All-Star Challenge and the Cup title in the same season.
In winning 10 races this season, Johnson raised his career victory total to 33. Tied with Fireball Roberts for 18th all time, Johnson is two wins behind Mark Martin, who posted a top 10 Sunday night at Homestead.
Johnson, 32, was 5 years old when Martin made his Cup debut at North Wilkesboro on April 5, 1981. Consider also that Ricky Rudd, who finished 21st Sunday in his final Cup race, retired with 23 wins in 906 starts. Rudd ran his first Cup race, at Rockingham on March 2, 1975, six months before Johnson was born.
The meteoric character of his success has yet to hit home with Johnson.
"I'm just showing up and doing my job and enjoying the opportunity I have," Johnson said Sunday night. "I am aware that we've done a lot in a short period of time, and it's something I've very proud of. I never thought I'd be in this position. It's an honor to be here, and I want to make the most of it."
The scary thing is that Johnson may just be getting started.