HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson wasn’t the best all year. Not even close.
When it mattered, though, he couldn’t be beat.
For the fifth consecutive year.
Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick took the champion all the way to the edge this season, waging the most serious threats yet to Johnson’s reign atop NASCAR. Only the outcome didn’t change, and Johnson maintained his ironclad hold on the Sprint Cup.
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Johnson became the first driver in the seven-year history of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship to overcome a points deficit in the season finale, finishing second Sunday to race winner Carl Edwards while winning his record fifth consecutive title.
He became only the third driver to overcome a points deficit in the season’s final race and win the championship since 1975. The final margin was 39 points over Hamlin, and 41 over Harvick, who finished third in the race.
So despite all the wins — 53 of them over nine seasons — and all the celebrations, this one at Homestead-Miami Speedway was obviously very different. Usually so calm and workmanlike behind the wheel, Johnson was exuberant as he crossed the finish line, pumping his fists in the car while screaming “this is unbelievable!” over and over.
“I’ve always told you the first championship, the first win, that stuff has meant the most to me. This one, I think this takes the lead,” Johnson said. “It’s not that the other Chases weren’t competitive. We were stronger in the previous two Chases, at least, but this one, I am just so proud.”
Maybe because for the first time since his reign began in 2006, Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team seemed vulnerable. Harvick was the most consistent driver of the 26-race “regular season,” and Hamlin, with a series-best eight wins this year, was the popular pick to dethrone Johnson.
Hamlin carried a 15-point lead into the finale, but struggled the entire race and turned Sunday into a battle of which driver would make the fewest mistakes.
It ultimately was Johnson, who overcame a few slow pit stops by a team that’s been in the spotlight since crew chief Chad Knaus benched his team in the middle of a race at Texas three weeks ago. The next day, the crews for Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon were swapped for the final two races of the year.
The No. 48 team rose above all the drama, even after a mid-race stop cost Johnson five spots.
“I think this year we showed what this team is made of,” he said. “At times this season we didn’t have the most speed, but we had the most heart.”
Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing team felt otherwise, especially as they outperformed Johnson during the Chase. But poor fuel mileage last week in Phoenix kept it tight headed into Sunday, and he had a terrible race when he needed only a clean run.
Contact with Greg Biffle very early in the race sent Hamlin into a spin and damaged the front of his car. He dropped to 37th by the restart and had to work all day to finish 14th.
“We had a great year, we won the most races that we ever won, we contended like we’ve never contended before and just circumstances took us out of this one,” Hamlin said.
Harvick, meanwhile, took the lead on a round of pit stops with 80 laps to go, but was flagged for speeding as he entered pit road. It dropped him to 29th, and he was still upset with the call after the race.