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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, which sat silent in stall number 24C. It was the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 20, and for Jimmie Johnson the opportunity to cement his status as NASCAR's most dominating driver of his time—strike that, of any time—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 that he trailed Denny Hamlin by 15 points in the standings, that he had everything in control. He chatted briefly with his crew chief, Chad Knaus, discussing what they needed to accomplish in the final practice of the season, which was minutes away. Then, before he headed out into the bright and breezy South Florida day, Johnson quietly savored the moment, reveling in the thrill of all that was possible out there on that sun-baked asphalt track.
"This is going to be the biggest race of my life," said the 35-year-old Johnson. "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 the way that Johnson has; he's the greatest closer in NASCAR's 62-year history. He did it again this year to win his unprecedented fifth straight Sprint Cup championship, overcoming a points deficit in the final race of the season for the first time in his title run. Yes, this Chase was radically different for Johnson from the previous four; this time he took the Cup in spite of not having the fastest car over the last 10 races or the quickest pit crew for much of the Chase. This time he raised the trophy at Homestead because of one reason and one person: Jimmie Johnson.
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 17. During his title binge Johnson also has more top five finishes (81) and top 10s (117) than any other driver.
Yet this season the road to the title was as bumpy as it's ever been. Johnson often looked lost on the track after NASCAR replaced the rear wing on the stock cars with the traditional-looking spoiler last March 28 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. The addition of the spoiler—a 4-by-64½-inch aluminum blade that's pitched at a 70-degree angle on the rear of the car—fundamentally changed the aerodynamics and handling characteristics of the stock cars. Johnson and Knaus had crushed the field in the Wing Era, winning 22 of the 98 races, but they were slow to adapt to the spoiler.
"We struggled over the summer, and we just didn't have the speed that we had in past years," said Johnson, who during a seven-race stretch this July and August finished 22nd or worse five times. "We were more vulnerable heading into this Chase than the last four."
The key moment of the Chase occurred at Phoenix International Raceway in the second-to-last race of the season. Hamlin had won the previous week at Texas Motor Speedway (Johnson was ninth) to take the points lead, and he easily motored to the front of the field in the Arizona desert. Midway through the race, as Johnson sailed around the track in seventh, Hamlin was up more than 100 points in the standings. Just then Hamlin and his crew had their collective boots on the throats of the 48 team. All Hamlin had to do was hold on over the final laps and he would be able to coast to the title at Homestead.
But immediately after a pit stop with 88 laps to go, Knaus told Johnson to conserve gas, believing that Johnson could make it all the way to the finish line without any more fuel. Mike Ford, Hamlin's crew chief, offered no such instruction, and Hamlin had to stop for gas with 14 laps left. Johnson, who purposely slowed dramatically over the final miles, made it to the finish on fumes and came in fifth; Hamlin wound up 12th, which chopped his lead to 15 points. Incensed, Hamlin punched the steering wheel of his car so hard that he drew blood on his right hand.
"They had us beat, but we outraced them in Phoenix," Knaus said. "Sometimes that's hard to swallow and can hurt you going forward. And Phoenix revived Jimmie. It gave him his spark back."
Indeed, Johnson drove brilliantly at Homestead, weaving through traffic as if it were as effortless as playing a racing video game. While Hamlin struggled late with a poor handling car—the result of an earlier accident—Johnson breezed to a second-place finish. He beat Hamlin, who came in 14th in the season finale, by 39 points to win the Cup.