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Sixth Sense: Johnson On Top Again
It was all the characteristics that have come to define Jimmie Johnson, wrapped up in one glorious South Florida evening. It was smooth, it was clinical, and for long stretches it appeared effortless. When it finally ended, with fireworks bursting overhead and confetti floating in the breeze and a big silver trophy held high, it was extraordinary -- just like the driver himself.
Johnson left no doubt in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, running up front for most of the event and finishing ninth to easily secure his sixth championship at NASCAR's premier level. He entered Sunday with a 28-point edge over second-place Matt Kenseth and was never really challenged, his silence over the radio speaking volumes about the strength of his No. 48 car.
But there was no keeping quiet afterward, not when a driver who will now be known as Six-Time clawed within a single championship of a mark many thought would never be matched -- the record of seven titles shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. In and of itself, Johnson's sixth Sprint Cup crown extends the legacy of a driver whose unlikely discovery and unparalleled rise has left an indelible imprint on NASCAR. In the bigger picture, it places him on the doorstep of a kind of greatness only two men have been able to reach.
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" Johnson shouted at the checkered flag, after clinching the title by 19 points over Kenseth. "Thank you, guys. What a race team. You guys are amazing. Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
The response of crew chief Chad Knaus echoed the thoughts of many: "You're the best out there, buddy. You're the best out there."
It's all remarkable, really, from the way Johnson makes it look so easy, to the fact that this former motocross racer from Southern California even made it here to begin with. And yet, Johnson goes out there and just glides his vehicle around the race track, his car control so complete it looks like he's leading it by a string.
He's not, of course. But it sure seemed that way two weekends ago at Texas, where Johnson led 255 laps in an effort that awakened memories of his five-year championship run, and wrestled control of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in the process. And it seemed that way again for much of Sunday, when Kenseth led the most laps and threw everything he had at Johnson, but the champion-to-be made one smooth circuit after another and turned in one of his best performances ever at Homestead to keep the points gap intact.
There was a single hold-your-breath moment, on a Lap 193 restart when slow cars at the front had many vehicles wiggling on the edge of control, and a chain reaction led to Johnson banging into Kenseth from behind. The contact knocked in a fender on the No. 48 car, raised concerns of a tire going down, and dumped Johnson from eighth place to 23rd. Suddenly Johnson's margin was down to 14 points, and in danger of being whittled down even more if the damaged fender necessitated an extra pit stop.
It didn't. Paul Menard's car blew a rear tire to bring out a caution, the No. 48 crew pulled out the fender on the ensuing pit stop, and crisis was averted. "I knew our car was plenty good enough to drive back up there," Knaus said. "Wish we could have raced for it … but we'll take what we got. We got a pretty cool trophy."
"It got us mired back in traffic, which made the last 50 laps kind of interesting," Johnson added. "But we still had an awesome race car that got the job done."
From there it was a coronation, Johnson maintaining his position and ticking off the laps, all of it a mere Sunday drive compared to what it had taken to get there. Johnson is the living, breathing intersection of talent and perseverance, someone who in his early days traded business cards with everyone he met, and would follow up by having his aunt type up letters that he'd stick in the mail. He made phone calls, he sent fax messages -- people did that back in the day -- he networked every chance he had.
"I didn't have the cash, the funds, the sponsorship, really the means, especially in California, to go stock-car racing," Johnson recalled. "So anybody I could meet on the East Coast, I just wore them out."
There was no easy way in for Johnson, who didn't come up the son of an established NASCAR racer like the two seven-time champions he one day hopes to join. Who knows what might have happened had Hendrick Motorsports not decided to expand its facility, and add a fourth driver in the process. Who knows what might have happened had Johnson not been testing his Herzog Motorsports car at Darlington Raceway the same day Jeff Gordon was there, giving him an opportunity to be impressed by this unknown making such clean lines around such a cantankerous track.
Who knows what might have happened had Johnson balked when former Lowe's chairman Bob Tillman, wearing of never reaching Victory Lane in so many years with Mike Skinner, asked him, blankly -- can you win? Johnson was well beyond business cards and fax messages then. He said yes. The rest has been history, even if the driver himself remains stunned by how it all unfolded.
"What he saw in me, and what Jeff Gordon saw in me, and what Rick Hendrick did at the time, I have no clue," Johnson remembered. "I really don't. I mean, I could barely run in the top 10 in Nationwide. The Nationwide win came a year later, after I signed a contract with them."
The key may very well have been Ricky Hendrick, who saw something in Johnson and pitched the unheralded driver to his father. "My son told me he was going to be a superstar," Rick said. The younger Hendrick never had the opportunity to witness that reality, perishing along with nine others in the crash of a company airplane in 2004. But his instinct, and the transformative impact it would prove to have on his father's race team, is further justified with every trophy Johnson collects.
"We liked Jimmie a lot. He was just such a classy guy. We felt like he was part of the family," Rick Hendrick said this week. "Then when Jeff raced against him at Michigan, Jeff said that he was special, he had a lot of talent. We took a chance. We had no idea. I mean, there was no reason, no way to look at him that he could be that good. We didn't see what we saw in Jeff Gordon early on when he was racing in the Nationwide Series. You thought it was there, but you didn't know it was going to be this good."
No one did. Johnson, who has blossomed from an unknown into a six-time series champion, will likely go down as the greatest talent discovery in NASCAR history. One day, he may very well go down as the greatest driver as well.
"I have six. We'll see if I can get seven," Johnson said Sunday night after climbing from his car. "Time will tell. I think we need to save the argument until I hang up the helmet."