He stood inside the number 48 hauler that was parked in the garage at Homestead-Miami Speedway, staring through the mirrored doors at the gathering crowd outside and, 50 yards beyond, at his race car that sat silent in stall number 24C. It was last Saturday afternoon, and, for Jimmie Johnson, the opportunity to cement his status as NASCAR's most dominant driver of this century—strike that, of any century—was only 24 hours away.
He glanced at a plaque that hung on a wall in the hauler—the team's track headquarters—memorializing the words of Vince Lombardi: WINNING IS NOT A SOMETIME THING; IT'S AN ALL THE TIME THING. He joked with his team owner, Rick Hendrick, coolly telling him not to worry over the fact that he trailed Denny Hamlin by 15 points in the standings, and assuring him that he had everything under control. He chatted briefly with his crew chief, Chad Knaus, discussing their goals for the final practice of the season, now minutes away. Then, before he headed out into the bright and breezy South Florida day, Johnson, reveling in the thrill of all that was possible out there on that sun-baked asphalt track, tried to put the moment into perspective.
"This is going to be the biggest race of my life," said the 35-year-old driver. "This Chase has been a dogfight. But when everything is on the line, I like our chances. This is why I race. I love this—just love the chance to prove something. I can't tell you why, but I'm really, really confident."
We can tell you why: No one who has ever slid behind the wheel of a stock car—not Richard Petty, not David Pearson, not Dale Earnhardt Sr.—has consistently performed at his best when it matters most like Jimmie Kenneth Johnson, the greatest closer in NASCAR's 62-year history. He did it again on Sunday, overcoming a points deficit in the final race for the first time in his title run, to win his unprecedented fifth straight Sprint Cup championship. This Chase was radically different from the previous four for Johnson; this time he captured the Cup in spite of having neither the fastest car nor the quickest pit crew. This time he raised the Cup at Homestead because of one reason and one person: himself.
How close was this year's championship? With 100 laps to go on Homestead's 1.5-mile oval in the Ford 400, Johnson trailed Hamlin in the standings by seven points. Johnson had just endured yet another slow pit stop under the yellow caution flag, falling from seventh position in the race to 13th. Hamlin, who needed only to stay on Johnson's rear bumper to win the title, was right behind him in 14th. As the cars slowly circled the track under the yellow flag, Hendrick, nervously watching from the pits, buried his face in his hands; he thought the end of their epic run was near. "I honestly didn't like our chances right then," the owner said after the race. "I guess I did what everyone else has done: underestimate Jimmie."
Over the last 150 miles of the race Johnson was flawless, running on both the high line and the low line, passing one car after another. Watching Johnson turn those laps was an experience akin to witnessing an Olympic skater turn in a perfect performance to win gold. At 180 mph Johnson controlled his car as if it were an extension of his body, hitting his every turning mark through the corners, twisting the wheel just so to weave through traffic. Perhaps most impressively, he eased off the gas pedal several times as he moved through the field in order to avoid the perils of running three-wide on the track. Johnson's mind always has been his greatest asset, and his care in keeping his car out of harm's way ultimately was the difference, because Hamlin was unable to do the same.
With 42 laps left, as Johnson calmly maneuvered into second place behind eventual race winner Carl Edwards, Hamlin began to fade. Early in the race, with his emotions in a fever, the 30-year-old Hamlin had driven every lap as though he were in a drag race. He moved from 37th—his starting position—to 23rd in just 15 laps. He appeared to have the fastest, smoothest-handling car on the track. But then, in an eyeblink, a year's worth of work was smashed when he collided with Greg Biffle, who was driving inside of Paul Menard, on Lap 24. Hamlin was attempting to pass down low when his car slid to the outside as the trio charged off Turn 2. No one was at fault in the accident; Biffle, with Menard to his right, and Hamlin merely ran out of space. But Hamlin never should have been so aggressive so early and attempted a pass inside of two cars already running side-by-side. His number 11 Camry sustained severe damage to its right front fender, and no matter what adjustments crew chief Mike Ford made during pit stops, the car was never as fast as it had been at the start. "Our car was banged up bad," said Hamlin, who became the first driver in Chase history to fail to win the championship after holding the points lead going into the final race. "We just could not overcome that."
So as Hamlin struggled through the final laps in 14th place on Sunday, Johnson cruised around the track like a man on a leisurely ocean-side drive. He finished second behind Edwards, beating Hamlin in the final standings by 39 points and Kevin Harvick, who finished the race in third, by 41. "They didn't make any mistakes today," said Edwards of Johnson and Knaus. "They steadily made their car better and let the other guys make mistakes. If you really look from the 10,000-foot view, that is probably what they do best."
When drivers such as Edwards talk about Johnson, they do so with a mixture of awe and bewilderment: It's easy to pinpoint what Johnson does well, but it's damn hard to replicate it. How complete has his domination of the Cup series been? Since 2006 Johnson has taken 35 checkered flags; the driver with the second-most victories over that span, Kyle Busch, has only 17 W's. During his title binge Johnson also has racked up more top five finishes (81) and top 10s (117) than any other driver. "Jimmie may just be the best there's ever been," says Bobby Allison, the 1983 Cup champion, who won 84 races, tied for third most alltime. "He has no weaknesses. He's just so smooth on the track, like he's not even trying. Nothing fazes him."
Yet this season the road to the title was as bumpy as it's ever been for Johnson and his team. After NASCAR replaced the rear wing on its stock cars with a spoiler on March 28 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Johnson often looked lost on the track. The spoiler—a 4-by-64½-inch aluminum blade pitched at a 70-degree angle—fundamentally changed the Cup car's aerodynamics and handling characteristics. Johnson and Knaus had dominated the Wing era, winning 22 of 98 races, but they were slow to adapt to the spoiler.