Johnson outsmarts competition to claim third straight Sprint Cup
Jimmie Johnson cemented his place as one of NASCAR's all-time greats
Johnson's push was aided by Carl Edwards' wreck at Talladega on Oct. 5
The Chase format has Johnson poised to make history with four straight titles
Five reasons why Jimmie Johnson won the 2008 Sprint Cup:
1. The driver
Johnson isn't a flashy driver. He almost lulls the competition to sleep because he's so steady, so smooth on the track. And over these last 10 races of 2008, Johnson was flawless. Unlike Carl Edwards, who caused a big wreck at Talladega in early October with an overly aggressive move, Johnson didn't make a single serious mistake in the Chase, which, ultimately, is why he won the title.
What is Johnson's biggest strength behind the wheel? I asked several people this question over the last few days -- including a sports psychologist who has worked with Johnson --and everyone said the same thing: his mind. When blasting around the track at 180 mph, Johnson has the rare ability to slow things down and calmly assess what he's feeling inside his car. Then, using language that's as descriptive as any driver's in NASCAR, he'll articulate what he's sensing to his crew chief Chad Knaus, who then will digest this information and make the appropriate adjustments during pit stops to find more speed.
Because this isn't an easily discernable skill -- certainly not as obvious as, say, being a bumper-and-grinder a la Tony Stewart -- it's been easy to under-appreciate Johnson's talent. But now that he's become the first driver since Cale Yarborough 30 years ago to win three straight Cup championships, it's time to acknowledge that, at age 33, Jimmie Johnson is already one of the all-time NASCAR greats.
2. The wreck
Looking back over the past 10 weeks it's easy to pinpoint the precise moment that the No. 48 team seized control of the Chase. Go back to Oct. 5 at Talladega Superspeedway. Late in the race Edwards, who was running second at the time, rammed into the back of his Roush Fenway teammate Greg Biffle. The slam caused Biffle to lose control of his car. He spun up the track, which collected Edwards and several other cars. The wreck ended Edwards' day -- and, in retrospect, his title hopes.
Edwards finished 29th while Johnson emerged unscathed from the crash and wound up ninth that afternoon in Alabama. For Johnson, this translated into a 62-point gain over Edwards in the standings. More important, it established the No. 48 team as the team to beat for the championship, as Johnson left Talladega with a 72-point advantage over Edwards in the standings -- a lead Johnson would never surrender. On Sunday in Homestead, once the checkered flag waved on the 2008 season, Johnson had 69 more points than Edwards.
3. The crew chief
On Sunday, Knaus became the first crew chief in NASCAR history to win three straight championships. Knaus is arguably the hardest working person in the sport. He took a grand total of two days off during the '08 season and he logs well over 100 hours a week tinkering with and thinking about his racecars.
Knaus is the driving force behind this team. After struggling early in the season, Knaus and his crew tested more than anyone else in NASCAR over the spring. These were grueling months, because nearly every week -- either on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday -- the team would travel to tracks all over the country in search of speed. The hard work eventually paid off, and by the time the Chase rolled around, the No. 48 team was peaking -- just like the previous two years.
4. The organization
There's an old saying in NASCAR: money means wins. Never has been this more apparent than this season, when the biggest three teams -- Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Roush Fenway Racing -- combined to win 29 of the 36 races. In other words, to seriously contend for a championship, a driver needs to hail from one of these three superpower organizations.
Rick Hendrick provides his teams with as many resources as any owner in the sport. Whenever Knaus asks Hendrick for something to either improve the performance of his team or his car, the answer is almost always the same: yes, which was critical to Johnson's championship run.
5. The Chase format
Remember when the pooh-bahs at Augusta National lengthened their golf course in order to "Tiger-proof" The Masters? Well, NASCAR may need to "Johnson-proof" the Chase, because there's not a single racetrack in the Chase at which Johnson struggles.
"It certainly helps that a lot of my best tracks in the Chase," Johnson says. "I have confidence everywhere I go."
As well he should. After all, at the 10 Chase tracks, Johnson has won 24 career victories, which is why he already looks poised to do something in 2009 that's never been done before: win four straight championships.