Jimmie Johnson wins 5th straight Sprint Cup title
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 10:59 PM
HOMESTEAD, FLA. - Of the three men in the running for NASCAR's premier series championship on Sunday, only one stayed out of the near-constant chaos that consumed the sport's season finale. Only one guy dodged trouble all day, logging a cool, steady, incident-free 400 miles on a sun-beaten track south of Miami.
It was that guy, Jimmie Johnson, who partied like a schoolboy long after the race. He whooped it up in his car, sent up clouds of smoke with celebratory spin-outs and reveled in having chased down points leader Denny Hamlin to claim an unprecedented fifth straight Sprint Cup series title.
By the time he made his way to a news conference nearly two hours after the race, Johnson, still wearing his racing cap and driver's suit, stank from champagne.
"It is so cool," Johnson said. "I really soaked in this experience and enjoyed it. . . . I know what we've done today is respected sports-wide. . . . I've accomplished so much more than I ever thought I could, I may as well have some fun with it."
Johnson equaled the title streaks achieved by other great sports franchises: the New York Yankees, Boston Celtics and Montreal Canadiens. He trails only NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt in total stock-car racing titles; both won seven.
"Those guys celebrating their championship, they earned it," said Carl Edwards, whose first-place finish on the day was dwarfed by Johnson's historic second. "That's the thing all of us are trying to do, is be that good. . . . I believe we are all witnessing something that's nothing short of spectacular."
After a season in which he was considered vulnerable and a race in which his team struggled with slow pit times, Johnson shoved aside series leader Hamlin, who saw his 15-point lead entering the day disintegrate into a 39-point deficit. Hamlin suffered a misfortune-tinged afternoon that left him in 14th place.
"When it's that close it's gotta sting," Johnson said. "I respect those two drivers and their teams for what they've done."
Johnson finished with 6,622 points; Hamlin earned 6,583; and Harvick, who trailed Hamlin by 46 at the start of the day, got 6,581. Edwards finished fourth overall with 6,393.
Hamlin was essentially done in by minor contact that damaged his car during the 18th lap. Harvick, meantime, got pushed out of title contention by a pit-row speeding penalty that he and his team argued vehemently.
Hamlin, already in a hole at the start with his 37th qualifying position, made slight contact with driver Greg Biffle, bumping up against him and knocking his own right bumper loose. Hamlin, who said the accident was a result of simply running out of space, gained control of his car as he skidded onto the grass. Though he climbed to eighth at one point, he said his vehicle was not the same after the incident.
"Our car was really fast at the beginning, just unbelievably fast at the beginning," Hamlin said. "The car didn't drive as well for the rest of the day. We tried to patch it. We did the best we could, but it just wasn't the [same] car."
Hamlin missed a chance to give team owner Joe Gibbs his third NASCAR title with three drivers (not unlike his having won three Super Bowls with three different Redskins quarterbacks).
"Coming this close is tough, especially because it's small, little things that could have changed the outcome of the race," Hamlin said.
For Harvick, the critical little problem was the speeding penalty he landed entering the pit area on the race's seventh caution. The penalty sent him from third to 29th in the field on the re-start with 72 laps remaining.
"I don't think that penalty will ever settle in my stomach," Harvick said. "I don't know how you can be speeding when you're on the bumper in front of you if the other guy's not speeding."
With 24 laps left, Harvick hit Busch from behind as Busch tried to slide in front of him. The contact sent Busch spinning into a fiery crash after contact with an infield wall. Busch, who was not injured, emerged from his car fuming. Harvick raced on.
"My guys worked way too hard to be put into this position . . . a wrecked race car at the end of the year," Busch told ESPN moments after the crash. "It's just a guy that doesn't have his head on straight today . . . he's such a two-faced guy."
Countered Harvick: "He raced me like a clown all day . . . bumping me, cutting me. I just had enough."
Harvick, though, could not get the best of Johnson, who said he now has his sights on matching Petty and Earnhardt.
"Closing the book on five in a row absolutely wraps it together and makes it complete in some ways," Johnson said. But "absolutely I'd like to tie them, I'd like to surpass them . . . I'm now looking at those marks the greats have put out there."