Jimmie Johnson raises the championship flag after winning his fifth straight, at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
The blue-collar kid from California's El Cajon, the guy who spent much of his early racing days on desert sands as a self-described 'C-class' racer, the guy who did nothing much to impress during his first few years in NASCAR until he stepped up to Cup in 2002, has just made some stunning stock car racing history.
Herb Fishel was right. The talent that the former Chevy racing boss saw in the then-little-known Johnson was indeed going to pan out big-time.
With five in a row now, some are even calling Johnson 'the best driver of all-time,' though that may be a bit much.
Despite all the struggles and pressure this rather ragged season – in fact, maybe because of them – Johnson can say "I had a lot more fun with this championship battle than any other."
It's been more than a championship season too. Johnson and wife Chandi just had their first child, now four months old, and front-and-center on the post-race stage. "It's just such an amazing experience to have a child...and to cap it off with a championship, this is just the coolest year ever."
Now that's a High Five (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Certainly Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have this NASCAR 'chase' thing down pat – In the seven years of Brian France's 10-race championship playoff format, Johnson and Knaus have won five of them.
Only two other drivers have won more championships, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, seven. But they earned their titles over the full season, not just a 10-race chase.
Johnson is also the first driver since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to come from behind in the standings in the final race of the season to win the title.
And then came two hours of post-race celebrations...and Knaus, as he readied to leave for home, pointedly noted: "The 2010 season ended two hours ago. And 2011 started two hours ago. And now I've got to have a tough talk with Jimmie about some testing he's going to have to do in a couple of weeks...."
Reflecting on Johnson's career, to put all this in better perspective, he could very easily have won the championship every single season.
Check the numbers, and consider that.
And through it all, Jimmie Johnson really hasn't changed that much at all. Richer, yes. Now a family man, with a pad in New York City. But still with that good ol' next-door-neighbor approach to just about everyone.
While that first championship, back in 2006, has been the most meaningful for Johnson up till now, "this one I think this takes the lead," he says.
"We were stronger in the previous two chases, maybe all four.
"But this one....I'm just so proud.
"We have had the highs and lows in the chase.
"I've been saying all along I've had a good time with this. This has been fun.
"I have really soaked in this experience."
Kyle Busch (18) was one of the day's casualties. It wasn't a day to mess with Kevin Harvick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Now Johnson is certainly no wild-and-zany Tim Richmond, or mean-as-nails Dale Earnhardt, or brash Darrell Waltrip, or toothy-grin Richard Petty.
Actually color Johnson more in the David Pearson mold, wily and tenacious on the track, always dangerous....but with a low-keyed personality.
Now it may seem a bit odd that the guy who has won so many titles and races now isn't more popular. The 'anyone but Jimmie' movement has been pretty strong.
But as Sunday night fell at Homestead-Miami Speedway, there were more cheers for Johnson than perhaps he might have expected.
"People tell me they hate me but they respect me, and that's always cool," Johnson said.
"A guy that had an "I hate 48" tee-shirt on when I was on the stage was giving me a thumbs up and said congratulations.
"In the moment I think it's tough for fans to maybe look at what we have accomplished, because they want their guy to win, and I understand that.
"But I know what we have done is respected sports-wide, not just in our little bubble."
The General: crew chief Chad Knaus (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So just how good is Jimmie Johnson at the wheel?
Knaus says pretty darned good:
"No disrespect to the guys that raced 'back in the day,' the Earnhardts, the Waltrips, the Pearsons, and you hear a lot about the tenacity of those drivers and how aggressive they were and how they could do things with the car that nobody else could do....
"But if you really sat back and looked at what this guy can do with a car, you would be pretty impressed.
"He's been in some pretty precarious situations and driven through them.
"He's put his nose in places other people would not.
"If you look at races like Texas against Matt Kenseth a couple of years ago, battling for the win, and everything was on the line for the championship right there, and if he had slipped one bit, the championship hopes would have been shattered....
"If you look at three-wide racing today, and having the brains -- David Pearson-style – to back out and say 'I can back off now and live to race another lap and get those two spots back,' where other people go bomb it in there and crash....
"I don't think he gets that (credit).
" As a friend and as a teammate, I want to make sure that he gets what he deserves."
"From the psyche standpoint, each year I've been in the sport I've become more comfortable with my role in the sport.
"The way I was raised in racing I had to earn the right to say things...and I had to earn the right to have confidence and to act a certain way.
"I see guys step out of line from time to time, with very little years of experience, and from my standpoint I don't think that's right.
"I'm now at a point where I feel I can say a few things.
"If you look at the garage, Jeff Gordon to Jeff Burton, there are guys there who really should be heard and listened to. And I'm trying to learn from those guys -- and make sure that when I do speak up and say something it's worth saying."
Might be some more changes coming on pit crews, after a few slow stops Sunday -- despite Chad Knaus' recent shakeups (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
Chuck Efaw, the rear tire changer for Red Bull's Kasey Kahne, who was clipped by Kevin Harvick during a round of pit stops, spent Sunday night in an area hospital, but was to be released Monday to fly home to North Carolina.
A CAT scan showed that he has three avulsion fractures of his lumbar spine, which are stable and should require no surgical procedures.
On the Mike Ford-Chad Knaus battle front, where the two rival playoff crew chiefs have played some head games with each other in the weeks leading up to Sunday's championship finale...Knaus got in the final words:
"I think our team and our organization is better than what they have got at (Joe) Gibbs," Knaus said pointedly.
"Just the facts.
"I didn't appreciate the way that they said that we were selfish and inconsiderate to the guys on our team when we had to pull them (from the pit crew mid-race at Texas)....and I wanted to make sure that this championship is not about that decision that was made in Texas in the middle of the race or the decision that was made the Monday after Texas, because that's not what it was.
"We work for the team, because there are 520-something people that work at Hendrick Motorsports and we have a responsibility to them to do what's right.
"This is a tough sport, it really is. I want to stress we did not win this championship because we switched pit crews. We won this championship because we are a great team.
"Those guys were struggling. It's no different than any other professional sport -- If you have a running back who has butter-fingers and he's dropping the ball, he's going to walk around camp all day holding a football until he gets figured out how to do it....and he's going to get benched for a while.
"It's not fun making decisions like that. One day it's going to happen to me: One day Rick is going to sit me down and say 'Man, sorry, buddy, you don't have it anymore.'
"It happens...and it's just sad it happened the way that it did."
For the three title contenders here, even Johnson, things didn't quite as planned Sunday afternoon.
Johnson and Knaus couldn't coast to this title; they had to work for it and sweat it out. "It was definitely a unique situation -- coming in here needing to be aggressive, and trying to make things happen," Knaus said.
"We had to perform."
About the pressure of the championship on the line in the final race for all three men, Johnson said that his experience at this stuff was an edge, because he'd been through all the emotions before, where Hamlin and Harvick hadn't.
"I knew at some point there was a feeling that was going to show up, and I was ready for it," Johnson said. "It showed up, and I'm like 'Okay, there it is: final race of the year, everything on the line.'
"When I saw Denny just before we walked across the (pre-race) stage, he said "Oh, my God, something hit me 30 minutes ago. And I didn't feel anything until now.'
"I knew that was coming. And the experience of being there before helped so, so much.
"But when that moment hit him, and the stuff I was, honestly, talking about -- the sense of losing the championship -- I've been there before. I knew what it did to me...and how I overcame it."
That was Sunday afternoon, just before the 1 p.m. start. Hours earlier the two, ironically, had crossed paths coming in at the airport.
"There was probably more awkwardness there than there was behind the stage before for driver intros," Johnson said.
"You work up such a competitive mindset, and there's so much competitive juices flowing that...we see each other and are both kind of distant.
"Then, before we went across the stage, I shook Kevin's hand and wished him good luck and said "You've had a hell of a year," and shook Denny's and said the same....
"At his car his guys were there, Mike Ford was standing with a big thumbs-up and I sent a thumbs-up back and went back to our car and did our thing.
"At the end of the day, even though there were shots thrown at us from the decision we made to change crew guys....and I certainly gave Denny a hard time when I could this week....and all the stuff that goes on....there's a great deal of respect."
Remember Jeff Gordon's 'Drive for Five,' after that fourth NASCAR championship?
Well now, some 10 years later, teammate Jimmie Johnson finished that job, with his fifth Sprint Cup championship.
Maybe even eight championships?
Jimmie Johnson has a pretty high bar even for a Jimmie Johnson.
"I don't know if it's in reach," Johnson says.
"I know we are going to have chances to win championships...but you just don't know how the year is going to unfold, you just don't know what is going to take place.
"It is so tough to win championships.
"It's easy to look at us having five in a row and say 'Just keep doing it.'
"But next year is a whole new year. No telling what the challenges will be, what we are going to face, the strengths of the other teams...
"There's Six and Seven out there ahead of us, and we'll work as hard as we can to do it.
"But it has not been something I have thought about, because I spent the majority of my career as a C-class driver. I never experienced stuff like this.
"Why would I set goals that are just so out there?
"But each year that goes by I've got to keep re-racking my goals.
"And we'll see what happens."
Right here again next fall.
Ford 400 winner Carl Edwards, lost in a blizzard of confetti (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)