Where does he go from here? Jimmie Johnson, that is. He goes for NASCAR title number seven, of course. After that, he goes for NASCAR title number eight. After that… well, who knows?
Is there any stopping this man and his team? They are young enough (their leader is 38) and good enough and focused and determined enough to win Sprint Cups until the thrill is gone. With team owner Rick Hendrick stroking the checks and crew chief Chad Knaus stroking their cars, there's no limit to what the No. 48 Chevrolet team can accomplish.
So the question remains: Where does Six Pack go from here? Does he finally get the nationwide acceptance and recognition most in stock car racing think he so richly deserves but has never fully received? Granted, he was named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in 2009, but that didn't truly elevate him into the upper echelons of mainstream America's sports consciousness.
And now, how comfortable is he with outsiders debating his greatness while he's still around, walking among us? “That's a reality I'm fine with," he said. "I'm looking forward to the opportunity and hoping I can accomplish more. I feel this team is capable of a lot of great things. There are still great years out there ahead of us. But all that's in the future… a seventh, an eighth. And Richard said eight to 10… that's all ahead of us.
“I don't want to focus on that yet. It's not time. I want to unplug, enjoy the sixth and let it soak in. We'll get to Daytona for testing soon enough [early January]. I guess by then it's probably appropriate to ask the question. I'm humbled by the nice things that have been said by competitors and owners, by my peers. I think their opinion is very important, but I don't think mine matters.
“It's not for the athlete or the driver to say. It's bestowed upon you, passed down from others and if others are saying it, I'm not going to deny it or chase it away. Sure, I'd love to be considered [the greatest]. If you look at stats, though, there are still numbers I need to achieve. That's why I say until I hang my helmet up it's not necessarily a fair conversation to have. I'm honored to be in it and know I'll have to face it, especially being so close to seven and having a shot to tie those guys. But not right now.”
While we wait, consider these one-word household names: Tiger. Michael. Lebron. A-Rod (for better or worse). Lance (for better or worse). Venus and Serena. Kobe. And in motorsports: A.J. Mario. King Richard. Big Dale. Junior. Dario. Danica (oh, yes, you do; don't deny it).
If five consecutive NASCAR titles didn't do it, will Sunday evening's sixth be enough for one-name recognition? Or will it take tying seven-time champions Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt before Jimmie Johnson simply becomes “Jimmie” during sports conversations in kitchens and rec rooms across America?
“Unfortunately, we're racing during the Jimmie Johnson era,” said Denny Hamlin, who won Sunday night's season-ending Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “In that sense, we're unlucky. He's won more than anyone [and] being out there and racing with him, I can say I think he's the best there ever was [because] he's racing against competition that's tougher than this sport's ever seen. The guy's just good. You need [for him to have] some bad luck here and there to beat him. The championships he didn't win is because he had some bad luck here and there, or maybe they beat themselves… something like that. Here lately, it hasn't happened that way.”
Hamlin's “best there ever was” comment came two days after Hendrick said much same thing. Rival team owner Richard Childress, at the same event, said Johnson will “go down as either the best there's ever been or one of the best there's ever been.” Team owner Joe Gibbs concurred that Johnson is without comparison. Petty said he won't be surprised if Johnson wins eight or nine or 10 titles and puts that record out of reach. “I don't think there's really a pick, is there?” he said on Friday when asked to predict this year's champion. “I think they've got all the stars lined up.”
Only NASCAR president Mike Helton side-stepped the issue, saying that history will be a better judge of Johnson than anything happening today. “The definition of Jimmie Johnson is yet to be determined,” he said. “But every season he participates adds to that definition. Nobody can dispute his talent and the organization [Hendrick Motorsports] and the continuity of that organization. I don't know if we've ever had a driver and crew chief -- other than Richard Petty and Dale Inman -- who have stayed aligned for so long, so many events under so much pressure and continue to perform at the level they have.”
It's ironic, then, that Johnson's championship-winning performance at Homestead was far from memorable. He qualified seventh, didn't lead any of the 267 laps (the 13th time that's happened this year) and finished an almost-unnoticed ninth. That was plenty good enough, though, to win his sixth Cup by 19 points over race runner-up Matt Kenseth and by 34 points over 10th-finishing Kevin Harvick.
“We did what we had to do,” Hendrick said when asked if the team's performance wasn't quite up to par. “We were a little conservative on the engine and stuff, and didn't take any chances. But we raced up to second and third and Jimmie was very careful on restarts. We knew what we had to do and we did it.”
Inevitably (and utterly impossible to do), Hendrick was asked to compare his 11 titles: six with Johnson, four with Jeff Gordon and one with Terry Labonte. He started out by stating the obvious: that all are special, all are memorable in their own way. After that, he struggled to find the words.
“This one,” he began haltingly, “...I don't know; I can't explain it. After the last two years [when Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski won the Cups] I refused to think about winning it again. My wife, sitting out there…. I told her we weren't going to win it. She told me, 'You're going to do it,' but I refused to believe it. It's nice to win 11 when Petty [Enterprises] had 10. We'll keep digging and see if we can come back and be competitive. If luck will be on our side next year, we'll be able to win another one.”
Hamlin, winless for more than a year, led five times for 72 of the 267 laps, including the final 24 for his 23rd career victory. He beat Kenseth (seven times for 144 laps), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (four for 28), Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, defending series champion Brad Keselowski (once for nine), Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Johnson and Harvick (three for eight). Kurt Busch (four laps) and David Ragan and Kyle Larson (one each) led the other six.
“It was a really great night,” Kenseth said after a terrific run that was, in the big picture, all for naught. “I'm so proud of the team and [teammates] Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, especially for Denny. It's been a tough, long year for him and honestly, this is what we all needed. This gives us a lot of confidence heading into next season. We were really dominant when the sun was out, but struggled when it went down. That's because the driver was a little reluctant to get up in the groove where he needed to run to make any speed. I wanted to finish the year with a win, but second is pretty good.”
He was talking about the race's finish order, but just as easily have been talking about the final point standings. Well, at least he was first in class.
NASCAR Sprint Cup
At Homestead-Miami Speedway
Lap length: 1.5 miles
(Start position in parentheses)
1. (5) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 267 laps, 130 rating, 47 points, $322,350.
2. (1) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 267, 139.9, 44, $293,251.
3. (21) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 267, 122.5, 42, $203,860.
4. (8) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 267, 104.8, 40, $174,235.
5. (25) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 267, 96.5, 39, $167,968.
6. (4) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 267, 110.4, 39, $156,701.
7. (11) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 267, 109.2, 37, $140,293.
8. (3) Joey Logano, Ford, 267, 98.7, 36, $119,518.
9. (7) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 267, 109.1, 35, $134,221.
10. (6) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 267, 91.7, 35, $126,246.
11. (26) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 267, 102.4, 33, $123,596.
12. (18) Carl Edwards, Ford, 267, 87.5, 32, $115,435.
13. (13) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 267, 88.1, 31, $94,060.
14. (10) Elliott Sadler, Toyota, 267, 74.8, 0, $88,110.
15. (20) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 267, 77, 0, $107,593.
16. (19) Aric Almirola, Ford, 267, 78.4, 28, $116,421.
17. (15) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 267, 78.1, 27, $113,343.
18. (27) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 267, 65.6, 26, $105,999.
19. (22) Mark Martin, Chevrolet, 267, 79.3, 25, $121,585.
20. (24) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 267, 61.4, 24, $80,935.
21. (2) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 267, 74.1, 24, $104,255.
22. (9) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 267, 66.7, 22, $122,396.
23. (14) Jeff Burton, Chevrolet, 267, 65.9, 21, $85,360.
24. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 267, 70.7, 20, $91,660.
25. (30) Parker Kligerman, Toyota, 267, 55.7, 0, $93,543.
26. (23) Marcos Ambrose, Ford, 267, 57, 18, $103,724.
27. (31) David Gilliland, Ford, 266, 48, 17, $90,368.
28. (40) Casey Mears, Ford, 266, 49.4, 16, $95,568.
29. (29) David Ragan, Ford, 266, 48.8, 16, $93,157.
30. (28) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 265, 51.4, 14, $103,230.
31. (32) David Reutimann, Toyota, 265, 38.5, 13, $74,685.
32. (37) J.J. Yeley, Chevrolet, 264, 40.5, 12, $71,960.
33. (39) Landon Cassill, Chevrolet, 264, 39.7, 0, $71,760.
34. (41) Ken Schrader, Ford, 263, 34.6, 10, $71,560.
35. (42) Joe Nemechek, Toyota, 263, 31.9, 0, $71,360.
36. (36) A J Allmendinger, Toyota, 257, 48.9, 8, $79,135.
37. (33) Travis Kvapil, Toyota, 248, 27.9, 7, $78,912.
38. (38) Dave Blaney, Chevrolet, 242, 36.5, 6, $65,750.
39. (12) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, accident, 229, 76.8, 5, $91,741.
40. (17) Trevor Bayne, Ford, engine, 223, 53.8, 0, $57,750.
41. (35) Josh Wise, Ford, rear gear, 119, 31.2, 0, $53,750.
42. (43) Tony Raines, Chevrolet, vibration, 104, 26.9, 0, $49,750.
43. (34) Michael McDowell, Ford, brakes, 63, 27.8, 1, $46,250.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 130.693 mph.
Time of Race: 3 hours, 3 minutes, 52 seconds.
Margin of Victory: 0.799 seconds.
Caution Flags: 8 for 37 laps.
Lead Changes: 22 among 8 drivers.
Lap Leaders: M.Kenseth 1-11; D.Hamlin 12-13; M.Kenseth 14; K.Harvick 15; M.Kenseth 16-25; D.Ragan 26; K.Harvick 27; Ku.Busch 28-31; M.Kenseth 32-91; K.Larson 92; M.Kenseth 93-139; D.Earnhardt Jr. 140; M.Kenseth 141-142; D.Earnhardt Jr. 143-153; M.Kenseth 154-166; D.Hamlin 167-207; K.Harvick 208-213; B.Keselowski 214-222; D.Hamlin 223; D.Earnhardt Jr. 224-235; D.Hamlin 236-239; D.Earnhardt Jr. 240-243; D.Hamlin 244-267.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): M.Kenseth, 7 times for 144 laps; D.Hamlin, 5 times for 72 laps; D.Earnhardt Jr., 4 times for 28 laps; B.Keselowski, 1 time for 9 laps; K.Harvick, 3 times for 8 laps; Ku.Busch, 1 time for 4 laps; K.Larson, 1 time for 1 lap; D.Ragan, 1 time for 1 lap.
FINAL Top 13 in Points: 1. J.Johnson, 2,419; 2. M.Kenseth, 2,400; 3. K.Harvick, 2,385; 4. Ky.Busch, 2,364; 5. D.Earnhardt Jr., 2,363; 6. J.Gordon, 2,337; 7. C.Bowyer, 2,336; 8. J.Logano, 2,323; 9. G.Biffle, 2,321; 10. Ku.Busch, 2,309; 11. R.Newman, 2,286; 12. K.Kahne, 2,283; 13. C.Edwards, 2,282.
NASCAR Driver Rating Formula
A maximum of 150 points can be attained in a race.
The formula combines the following categories: Wins, Finishes, Top-15 Finishes, Average Running Position While on Lead Lap, Average Speed Under Green, Fastest Lap, Led Most Laps, Lead-Lap Finish.
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