It was here at Phoenix International Raceway last season where Jimmie Johnson somehow saved his run of championships, stretching a fuel run to the finish and keeping close enough to Denny Hamlin that he could overtake him in the finale the next week. The five-time champion needed an ever bigger miracle Sunday, as his unprecedented streak of five consecutive titles neared its last gasp.
He didn't get it. Johnson finished a mediocre 14th on what had traditionally been one of his better tracks, and fell 68 points behind leader Carl Edwards with only next week's season-ender at Homestead-Miami Speedway remaining. In the process, he was eliminated from contention for this year's championship, and the most dominant run the sport has ever seen came to a somewhat unceremonious end.
For the first time since 2005, NASCAR's premier series will have a new champion. For the first time in five years, a different driver will sit at the head table at the awards banquet. For the first time in half a decade, a vehicle besides the No. 48 hauler will occupy the first slot in the garage area every weekend.
"There's definitely disappointment," Johnson said on pit road after the race. "I think that will be the emotion I deal with first. And then over the offseason, I'm sure it will kick in some and reflect. I'll reflect then, but still -- in order for us to be where we want to be next year, we've got to work very, very hard during this offseason to understand what's up, and that's not going to make it all that relaxed. So, I'm up for the challenge. This team is. My guys work so hard, and we'll learn and grow from this."
For a driver who has built his reputation on excelling in the Chase, dominating the NASCAR playoff for most of its history, it's been an uncharacteristic climax to the season. Sunday marked his fifth finish outside the top 10 in this Chase, an amount that exceeds his number of finishes outside the top 10 in his previous three playoffs combined. Signs of vulnerability were evident even last year, when Johnson carried his program to another title despite the fact that his vehicles sometimes suffered a disadvantage in speed. This year thus far has brought just two victories, his lowest total since 2003, and he needs a good run at Homestead to keep his nine-year streak of top-five final points finishes intact.
"To a certain degree, being on top for as long as we have been takes a lot of effort to maintain that. It just takes a lot out of you," said Johnson, who stands fifth in points, two ahead of Matt Kenseth in sixth. "So this winter will be a nice winter to unplug and relax and really look internally and dissect the different areas of the race team and what we do and come back stronger. I've always learned more from tougher moments, and by no means is this a tough moment. Yes, the streak is gone, but we've still got a shot at a top-five in points, and that would be a big year still."
Either Edwards or Tony Stewart, the only two drivers still mathematically eligible for this year's championship, will succeed him. But it seems unlikely that anyone will ever match what Johnson has done.
"I don't see anybody doing it again," Stewart said. "I think it's been absolutely remarkable to begin with for Jimmie to put five in a row together. I know this year hasn't ended up the way he's wanted by any means. I think he goes to [the banquet in] Vegas and holds his head up high knowing what they've accomplished. The fact that there's a real good possibility in the history of the sport for eternity that it could never happen again. The competition gets tighter and tighter, tougher and tougher. I just think it's amazing.
"You understand why people didn't want him to win a sixth one. At the same time, I've said it from day one, how do you knock down a guy that's going out and doing what he's supposed to do? If we could trade places with him, we'd do it in a heartbeat, go out and win five in a row. I think you've got to tip your hat to him. I think that's something in NASCAR history that I would put my money on that it will never happen again. I'm willing to put that bet with anybody in this room right now. I just think it's remarkable at this level to do what he's done, what that team's done. I know this year hasn't ended the way they wanted, but I still think they have to have a lot of pride in knowing they've done something in the history of the sport that most likely will never be duplicated."
For Johnson, contemplating his place in history will come later. Now, he goes to Homestead trying to get one more race win, and stay in the top five in points. And for the first time in a long time, he'll do it without a championship on the line. Welcome to NASCAR's new normal, Jimmie Johnson standing on the sidelines and watching others vie for the crown.
"I've been racing 30 years -- shoot, 31 years, and I've won probably two other big championship along the way," Johnson said. "So, seven out of 31 years -- this is normal. What we did over the last five years is abnormal. And then now we'll get a taste of normalcy."