Johnson wins record 4th straight NASCAR championship
Jimmie Johnson celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season championship, at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton) By Chuck Burton
Jimmie Johnson celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup season title at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton) By Chuck Burton
Jimmie Johnson, left, raises the trophy with NASCAR chairman Brian France, right, after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton) By Chuck Burton
Jimmie Johnson does a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup series season championship, at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) By Lynne Sladky
Jimmie Johnson raises the trophy after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup season championship, at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Terry Renna) By Terry Renna
HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) -- All Jimmie Johnson ever wanted was a chance to race with the best in NASCAR. Maybe even win a race or two.
Never did he expect to be a champion.
Especially four times over.
Johnson bulldozed his way into the record books by becoming the first driver in NASCAR history to win four consecutive championships, finishing fifth in Sunday's season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He joins Richard Petty (7), Dale Earnhardt (7) and teammate Jeff Gordon (4) as the only drivers to win more than three titles.
"To do something that's never been done in the sport, and love the sport like I do and respect it like I do and the greats -- Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon -- to do something they have never done is so awesome," Johnson said. "And to win four championships in eight years, what this team has done -- this is unbelievable."
Yes, it is.
Johnson now stands atop NASCAR as a one-man dynasty, much like Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Lance Armstrong in their sports.
Only Johnson hasn't been feted under a blizzard of confetti by himself. His mighty Hendrick Motorsports team rules NASCAR the way UCLA once dominated the hardwood or Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls reigned supreme.
Johnson's title gave a record 12th overall championship to team owner Rick Hendrick, who was in North Carolina with a niece who's awaiting an emergency liver transplant. In his absence, the team took the top three spots in the final standings. Mark Martin wound up with his fifth runner-up finish in the standings, while Gordon was third.
"I feel really, really blessed to have had a chance," Martin said.
There's seemingly plenty of chances left for Johnson's tag-team with crew chief Chad Knaus to keep the No. 48 in the title hunt for another decade.
The 34-year-old Californian on Friday signed a five-year contract extension to drive for Hendrick through 2015, and Knaus has insisted the No. 48 team can keep this pace for the next several years.
"He's not done yet," teammate Martin said.
No, he is not.
Johnson never let up in pursuit of the championship, even though he needed only to finish 25th or better to get it Sunday. But he pushed for all 400 miles and even threatened to try to run down the leaders to better his eventual fifth-place finish.
"History, boys!" he shouted as he crossed the finish line. "How about some history!"
Upon leaving his car in Victory Lane, Johnson first thanked the fans, tears sparkling in his eyes.
"Man, it's going to take a while to sink in," he said.
It was a sometimes testy drive into history for Johnson, who was at times annoyed at rival drivers and even Gordon, the mentor and teammate who helped him land his job with Hendrick Motorsports.
Nobody gave Johnson anything, either. The other drivers raced hard around him all day, making Johnson earn every point in a race won by Denny Hamlin, who established himself as a driver to watch in 2010 by winning a career-high four races this season.
Hamlin also managed to keep pace with Johnson at times but fell out of contention with three DNFs.
That won't get it done against Johnson and Knaus, who won seven races this season and, as usual, turned it up a notch when the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship began.
Johnson grabbed four of his wins in the Chase and played it safe only once, at Talladega when he ran near the back of the field most of the day to avoid the trouble at the Alabama track.
Only the joke was on him when his problems popped up a week later, at Texas, where he was wrecked on the third lap and lost 111 points from his cushion over Martin. It still left him with a cozy 78-point margin headed into last weekend's race at Phoenix, where he probably could have laid back and protected his lead.
Instead, he pounced and earned a dominating victory that set the stage for an easy Sunday.
Of course, he instead went hard. After several tense laps chasing Gordon for fifth place -- Johnson at one point complained over his radio "I let him go, now why won't he just go somewhere!" -- he asked Knaus if he had enough time to catch Hamlin and the leaders.
Johnson didn't like being told no by his crew chief.
"Is that a dare?" he asked Knaus.
"No. That is a fact," Knaus replied.
So is Johnson's place in history, which seems to be undervalued despite 47 victories since 2002. He's never finished lower than fifth in the final standings and actually had a shot at winning the championship in 2004 and 2005 -- only to fall short in the finale.
"Jimmie is an incredible, incredible talent. He is the most underrated driver in this garage," Knaus said. "That guy can do things in a race car that I've never seen before. I hope this proves it to everybody."
His competitors insist time will take care of Johnson's legacy, but they continue to marvel at his success.
"If you would have told me four years ago that someone would win four championships in a row, I would have told you you were crazy," said Jeff Burton, who finished second in Sunday's race.
Even Gordon, who won four quick titles early in his career but has been shut out since 2001, is impressed.
"As a competitor, that Johnson ticks me off. As a friend, teammate, fellow car owner, they're amazing," Gordon said. "I never thought in my career, in my lifetime, I'd see somebody win four in a row. To see it happening right in front of your eyes makes it even more extraordinary."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)