Look out, New York City. A five-time champion is rolling your way.
Jimmie Johnson, who sits atop the NASCAR world for a record fifth straight season, will be in New York early this week on a two-day news media blitz where he’ll try to explain how he’s won five straight after a 2009 season in which he often struggled to explain how he had won four in a row.
It’s an exceptional moment in the NASCAR narrative. For all of the sport’s history until Johnson grabbed firm control of the wheel, only Cale Yarborough had been able to string together three straight Sprint Cup championships.
Now Johnson has pushed his number to five, putting him well within range of the record of seven Sprint Cup titles owned by the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. and the retired Richard Petty. Earnhardt and Petty are the only drivers with more titles than Johnson, whose Sunday championship broke a tie with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.
Team owner Rick Hendrick also got in on the record-breaking activity, as his 10th Cup title (five by Johnson, four by Gordon and one by Terry Labonte) broke a tie with Petty Enterprises.
Champion crew chief Chad Knaus, the only pit boss to win five straight titles, now trails only retired Dale Inman, Richard Petty’s long-time crew chief, in the career championship total. Inman has eight.
They are dizzying numbers but ones that have come to be expected from Johnson and his team, even in a season in which they started the Chase with a 25th-place run at Loudon, NH and a late-season scramble of Hendrick pit crews after Johnson’s normally reliable team faltered.
Even though Carl Edwards won Sunday’s race, continuing a surge of his own for his second straight win, Johnson’s amazing feat brought a new level of astonishment to the garage area, where the sport’s top talent has spent half a decade fruitlessly chasing Johnson and Knaus.
“I was very relieved to get the first one [championship]; it was super, super special,” Johnson said. “But this has a different feel. I’ve had a good time with this. This has been fun. I’ve really soaked in this experience and enjoyed it.
“I have to give a lot of credit to the 29 and 11 and their teams and the effort they put out. It wasn’t easy by any means. After all the years of the Chase to have it come down to this final race – it was cool to be a part of it.”
In other words, Johnson said, to be forced to race so hard for a title made it sparkle.
“I’ve always told you guys the first championship and first win – that that stuff has meant the most to me, but this one, I think, takes the lead,” he said.
Johnson’s fifth title will be a disappointment for the anti-Johnson fans who relish an end to his reign. If another title doesn’t bring universal joy, he at least gets respect, Johnson said.
“I feel like I’ve received a ton of respect for what we’ve done,” he said. “After the race, I had a guy with an ‘Anybody But 48’ shirt on giving me a thumbs up. I know what we’ve done today is respected sports-wide – not just in our bubble but sports-wide.”
Although Johnson finished second and outran Hamlin by 39 points for the championship, crew chief Chad Knaus described Sunday as “a taxing day. We knew what we needed to do was go out and run competitively. It was not shaping up exactly how we wanted to early on. The car was not quite as good as we wanted it.
“But we knew what we needed to do and stay focused. We were real fortunate to be able to do it. It speaks volumes about what we can do when we work together.”
Next on the Johnson-Knaus radar is championship No. 6 – Six-Pack as they called it Sunday. Assuming they can get that one – and why would anybody assume anything else? – there will be the hunt for a title that will tie Johnson with Petty and Earnhardt, two of the sport’s legends.
“I’d love to tie them,” Johnson said. “I’d love to surpass them. I don’t know how realistic that is. I never thought I’d get to this point. We’ll start working on six next year. We’re a hell of a lot closer now than when the day started. I’m now looking at those marks that the greats have put out and hopeful to get up there to them.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.