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Every year Jimmie Johnson dashes the hopes of someone new. In 2006 the victim was Matt Kenseth, the '03 Cup champion and one of the most consistent drivers of his generation. Kenseth put together a career season in '06 with a personal-best 15 top five finishes—and yet he couldn't catch Johnson.
The next year it was Jeff Gordon, a four-time champ and full-blown stock car legend. Before the Chase in 2007, Gordon confided to an acquaintance that, in his estimation, it would take an average finish of 7.0 to win the title. Ten nearly flawless races later he ended the Chase with an average of 5.1—yet still lost by 77 points.
In 2008 it was Carl Edwards. That should have been Edwards's dream season. Driving for the dominant team that year (Roush Fenway Racing), he won a series-high nine races—yet fell 69 points short in the Chase.
And this fall it was Mark Martin's turn. As the 50-year-old driver sat in the back of his number 5 hauler at Phoenix International Raceway on Nov. 14, the day before the season's penultimate race, he rubbed his hands over his lined face and observed in a quiet voice that this had been the finest, fastest season of his 27-year Cup career. He had come into the Chase as the top seed—yet when it was over he had lost the title by 141 points.
On Sunday evening at Homestead-Miami Speedway the 34-year-old Johnson became the first driver in the 61-year history of NASCAR's top series to win four straight season championships, cruising past Cale Yarborough (the winner in 1976, '77 and '78) in the record books. How transcendent has Johnson's title run been? Put simply, it's the racing equivalent of an NFL team winning four straight Super Bowls. "Jimmie and his team might be the best there's ever been," says Richard Petty, NASCAR's alltime wins leader (200) and a seven-time Cup champion. "It's hard to compare drivers from different eras, but I do know this: I wouldn't want to be racing against him right now."
Johnson arrived in South Florida for Sunday's Ford 400, the final race of the season, with a 108-point lead over Martin, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, which meant all Johnson needed to do was finish 25th or better in the field of 43 and he'd be the champion again, even if Martin led the most laps and took the checkered flag. After winning the pole with a spectacular qualifying lap on Friday, Johnson led 28 of the first 32 laps on Sunday and then settled in to cruise carefully and comfortably around the 1.5-mile track, staying clear of other cars and never pushing his. With Jeff Gordon, another Hendrick teammate, directly behind him in the closing 30 laps, protecting him from other drivers, Johnson came home in fifth place (behind winner Denny Hamlin) to take the title by 141 points over Martin, who finished 12th at Homestead. Gordon, in sixth, sewed up the third spot in the final standings, giving Hendrick an unprecedented 1-2-3 season.
But for the record books, the night was Johnson's, and as he crossed the finish line, he yelled in triumph on the radio to his crew, "History, boys. No one ever! Ever!"
Kurt Busch, who finished fourth in the standings, summed up what makes Johnson unique. "There's not a single thing that Jimmie doesn't do well," he said. "He's great on restarts. He's cool under pressure. He's got awesome car control, and he doesn't make mistakes. In all of these areas, he's as good as anyone in the sport. He's the total package."
It's not easy to discern what makes a driver great in motor sports. After all, there are differences among the cars, and there's nothing you can measure in NASCAR that is like a 40-yard dash in football or length off the tee in golf. But talk to those closest to Johnson and to those who race against him each week, and they will tell you—to a man—that what separates Johnson from everyone else in the sport is one thing: his mind. "I've been around for a long time, and I've never seen anyone better prepared mentally than Jimmie," says Martin. "First and foremost, he's great because of what he does outside of the car. It's almost like he's won the race before he gets behind the wheel."
Indeed, there was Johnson last Thursday afternoon in a conference room at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Coral Gables, Fla., an hour before he was to take part in a group press conference with Martin and team owner Rick Hendrick. Johnson sat in front of his laptop and pored over his notes from the 2008 season finale at Homestead. With the glow of his computer screen lighting his face, Johnson studiously read what he had written a few days after that race. My exit was decent, he noted of Turn 3 at Homestead, but would end up loose off if I really hit the center well. It didn't feel like the back of the car was on the track.