Jimmie Johnson kept glancing in his rearview mirror, waiting to see the stripe. Six years ago, in one of the few championship battles he's lost on NASCAR's premier circuit, he saw the pink-colored valence along the bottom of Kurt Busch's race car stick out like a warning light, growing closer and closer until it was past him. Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he again looked anxiously behind, waiting on the bright orange splitter along the bottom of Denny Hamlin's vehicle to come roaring up and devour him.
This, time, though, he saw nothing but space. Hamlin's car was buried deep in the pack. And another Cup Series title was there for Johnson's taking.
"Unbelievable!" Johnson screamed over team radio after extending his unprecedented run of consecutive championships to five with a near-flawless performance behind the wheel. "You guys are the best! I cannot believe we did this! Unbelievable!"
Let there be no more doubts about Johnson, not after Sunday, when he claimed his most unlikely championship with perhaps the most impressive pressure performance of his career. Trailing Hamlin by 15 points entering the weekend, he seized the title with a runner-up finish in the season finale that left his competition in the dust. Anyone hoping for a repeat of 2004, when Busch edged Johnson by single digits in the standings, went home disappointed. Johnson never gave anyone else a chance in South Florida, overcoming a few slow pit stops and capitalizing on his rivals' mistakes to win a title race that really wasn't that close in the end.
"I think it's definitely going to give Jimmie some of the praise that he needs for the type of driver that he is," said crew chief Chad Knaus, who's clearly biased but also speaks the truth. "[He's a] fantastic driver, and really has not gotten the praise that he deserves. Coming in here [Sunday] and doing what he did, I think that shows an awful lot of talent."
All the criticisms about how he's only a product of the Chase, about how he knows only how to work the system, about how he's never had to perform on the final weekend -- they all died for good Sunday, buried somewhere in the grassy swamps that surround this 1.5-mile track. How do you argue with how Johnson delivered at Homestead, in the midst of the tightest championship race of his reign? He got inside his closest opponent's head. He qualified in the top 10, something that no one else in title contention could do. He carried himself as the favorite rather than someone trying to rally from behind. And when time came to put foot to accelerator, he was often untouchable.
There was no backing into this title, no getting lucky, no fluke outcome that extended the drive for five. He just out-drove everyone else. Hamlin looked skittish before the race and drove like it early on, getting up into Greg Biffle and suffering damage that would hamper his run the rest of the day. The controversial pit-road speeding penalty that essentially took third-place Kevin Harvick out of contention? Ultimately, it didn't matter. Johnson won this championship by doing everything save winning the race.
His cars weren't the best; in fact, in recent weeks they'd proven to be blatantly inferior to Hamlin's. His Hendrick Motorsports team wasn't its usual dominating self; there was no sweep of the top three positions, a feat the organization pulled off last year. There were signs that Johnson was plainly vulnerable -- the mid-race swap of his entire pit crew two weeks go at Texas, the fact that he entered the Chase endgame trailing rather than in his customary spot up front. All signs pointed to a changing of the guard.
And still Johnson was the best, again. He earned a second wind when last week's event at Phoenix was decided by fuel mileage, allowing him to chop Hamlin's point advantage in half. His mental toughness, long an underrated part of his skill set, was on display all week as he heaped all the pressure on the leader. Sunday morning, Knaus sent him a text: "Nothing else matters." Because of the disparity in qualifying efforts, Johnson leapt to an 83-point lead as soon as he took the green flag to start the race. Suddenly, it seemed like old times, with everyone chasing the No. 48 again.
Unsuccessfully, at that. The result for Johnson was a championship that stands out above his others, even the first triumph in 2006 or the unprecedented fourth consecutive crown last year.
"This one, I think, this takes the lead," said Johnson, who won by 39 points over Hamlin and 41 over Harvick. "Just the circumstances. It's not that the other Chases weren't competitive. We were stronger I think in the previous two Chases, at least. Maybe all four. But this one, I'm just so proud, because there were times on Saturday nights when we would get together and discuss our race car after practice, and we would have some tough conversations, and just struggled to get what we needed."
And now, with five championships in the bank, comes the obvious -- seven, and the possibility of joining an elite club that to this point has only two members. We're beyond the pipe-dream phase now. The possibility that Johnson could one day stand title-to-title alongside luminaries like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt has become very real, something even the 35-year-old former motocross racer is forced to admit, even if he still can't quite grasp the magnitude of it.
But try this: It took Petty 654 races on NASCAR's top division to win five titles. It took Earnhardt 390. Johnson has made it in 327.
"I don't know if it's in reach. I know we are going to have chances to win championships, but you just don't know how the year is going to unfold. You just don't know what is going to take place. It is so tough to win championships, and it's easy to look at us having five in a row and say, naturally, just keep doing it. Next year is a whole new year. There's no telling what the challenges will be," Johnson said.
"We are closer. There's six and seven out there ahead of us, and we'll work as hard as we can to do it. And it has not been something I have thought about, because I spent the majority of my career as like a C class driver. I never experienced stuff like this. Why would I set goals that are just so out there? So each year that goes by, I've got to keep re-racking my goals and we'll see what happens."
Time will tell whether Johnson can join that pantheon. Meanwhile there was Sunday, and a race that showed just what the driver of the No. 48 car can do when everything is on the line in a single afternoon. That's always been the knock against Johnson, that he's more a cog in the Hendrick system than a great driver in his own right. That myth perished in burnout smoke and screams of celebration. Even in a down year for his own program, form held. One driver, one race, one title, and one performance that burnished the reputation of the greatest driver of his generation.
"I think if you really sat back and looked at what this guy can do with a race car, you would be pretty impressed. He's been in some pretty precarious situations and driven through them. He's put his nose in places that other people would not do and not be able to pull off," Knaus said. "... If you look at three-wide racing today and having the brains, David Pearson-style to back out and say, 'I can back off now, and live to race another lap and get those two spots back,' to where other people go in there and bomb it in there and crash and beat off somebody else. ... As a friend and as a teammate, I want to make sure that he gets what he deserves."
After Sunday, and the most decisive performance of Johnson's career, maybe now he finally will.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.