Johnson perseveres to win fifth Cup title
In Jimmie Johnson‘s own words, “Unbelievable!”
That’s the only way to describe the No. 48 team’s perseverance in securing a record-breaking fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
For the first time during Johnson’s five-year title run, he and the team showed vulnerability throughout the season, especially leading up to the playoffs.
For the final two races, Johnson had a simple strategy — outrun Denny Hamlin. And that’s where the experience of being a champion paid off.
Coming into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and trailing Hamlin by 15 points, Johnson remained cool. During his previous four runs at the title, he had never been the driver chasing the points leader. If he felt pressure, it never showed.
Throughout the weekend, Johnson executed the game plan perfectly. He outqualified both Hamlin and third-place Kevin Harvick, the only two capable of ending his title reign, with a sixth-place starting position. With Hamlin rolling off 37th, it wasn’t surprising that he took a pounding in the early laps, particularly after colliding with Greg Biffle on Lap 24 and experiencing major damage to his splitter.
After taking a ride through the grass, Hamlin fought back into the top 10 and ahead of Johnson, but his progress didn‘t last.
“When (Hamlin) got in front of me and was up there, two spots in front of me, I thought, 'Man it is going to be tough now,'” Johnson said. “And I expected them to be there. We had a restart or two and we went forward and they went backwards and off it went.”
Of the three title contenders, Johnson was the only driver to lead a lap. He picked up five bonus points on Lap 71. Initially, Harvick appeared destined to take the lead from the pits on Lap 188 — until moments later when NASCAR levied a penalty on him for excessive speed entering the pits. Harvick fell to 29th in the field, which enabled Johnson to run his own race.
Although the No. 48 team continued to have problem in the pits — including during the seventh caution on Lap 165 when Johnson entered the pits sixth and exited 12th after his left rear tire changer slipped, leading to a 15-plus-second pit stop — Johnson begged his crew to have his back. Crew chief Chad Knaus and the crew responded. With solid adjustments in the end game, the No. 48 Chevrolet was ready to battle.
On Lap 219, Johnson was comfortably in second place. With Carl Edwards’ dominance in the race, Knaus instructed Johnson to stay the course and not take any unnecessary chances — particularly with Harvick running in third place right behind him.
As Edwards breezed to the finish, Johnson sauntered home in second place with a 39-point advantage over Hamlin.
As Johnson put on a burnout display around race winner Edwards, he radioed to his crew, “Unbelievable! WOOHOO! You guys are the best. I can't believe that we did this. Unbelievable!"
Unreal is more like it.
This entire Chase has been a roller coaster unlike any he has endured.
Johnson entered the Chase for the Sprint Cup 10 points behind Hamlin. In the first race of the Chase at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Johnson was caught in two incidents, finished 25th and dropped to seventh in the points standings. He vaulted back the following week at Dover with a win — his sixth of the season.
The team remained solid until the eighth race of the Chase, at Texas Motor Speedway, where the pit crew simply choked. Knaus called an audible by replacing his own team with the pit crew of teammate Jeff Gordon. Johnson salvaged a ninth-place finish, but Hamlin went on to win and build a 33-point lead.
The pit-crew swap became official for the remainder of the season on the following Monday. With the new team, Johnson finished fifth at Phoenix International Raceway — seven positions ahead of Hamlin — and cut Hamlin's lead to 15 points for the final test at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And Johnson aced it.
“I think this year we showed what this team is made (of),” Johnson said. “At times we didn't have the most speed, but we proved it here at the end of the Chase and especially here today.
“I am just beside myself. Four was amazing. Now I have to figure out what the hell to say about winning five of these things because everybody is going to want to know what it means. I don't know! It is pretty damn awesome I can tell you that."
And as Knaus walked out of the media center, he simply smiled and said, “Just wait until next year.”