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CUP: Johnson Seems To Shine Perpetually

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In mid-January, NASCAR is expected to reveal the changes that will refurbish the Chase for the Sprint Cup next season.

There is no truth to the rumor that one of them will involve locking Jimmie Johnson in an inescapable cage somewhere in Madagascar.

In any case, that would not work. Chad Knaus would figure out some way to free him. Maybe a track-bar adjustment.

The rest of the Sprint Cup world rolled out of Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday night numbed by yet another stultifying performance by Johnson, now a five-time champion. It turns out that Johnson can win championships even when he is forced to come from behind. Who knew?

After a three-minute break for Thanksgiving, everybody else in the series will begin anew the arduous and wearisome process of trying to devise ways to win a championship that Johnson now seems to control perpetually.

His Sunday run – smooth, smart, determined and professionally precise despite a few pit problems – was the best evidence yet that he is one of the sport’s all-time greatest drivers. Since 1975, the year Johnson was born, only two other drivers – Richard Petty and Alan Kulwicki – have come from behind in the season’s last race to win the championship. In the hot pressure of a toasty Sunday afternoon, after an endless number of race-week interviews about how hard it was going to be to beat one of the sport’s best young drivers (Denny Hamlin) and one of its toughest schoolyard bullies (Kevin Harvick), Johnson responded with the stuff of champions.

Banished now, for good, should be the ridiculous talk that Johnson is simply the lucky guy who happens to be driving one of racing’s best vehicles, that he hasn’t had to perform in the fire of last-race pressure, that he isn’t deserving of having his name mentioned alongside the Pettys and Waltrips and Earnhardts.

Instead, the talk should turn to this – What can everyone else do to supplant him?

For Harvick, one of those who failed Sunday, the fact that Johnson actually had to struggle to win his fifth opened the window of opportunity.

“I think that you have to step back and look at it and realize what they have accomplished is pretty remarkable,” he said. “But, for us, I think you step back looking at they are also vulnerable. This is the first crack at it. They have obviously done a great job, but there’s a few chinks in the armor, and I think everybody has caught up to being more competitive to them. They are going to be competitive going forward, and hopefully we are as competitive going forward, as well.”

Hamlin, whose sagging disappointment was transparent in the aftermath of Johnson’s run for number five, said there is more work to be done to catch the 48.

“There’s 42 other race teams that have got work to do,” he said. “For me it is, and obviously coming this close is tough, especially the small, little things that could have changed the outcome of this Chase in one lap. But that part of it hurts, but that’s – you’ve got to get better at all aspects and I feel like that’s where that team’s been – the 48 team has been strong over the last few years. They really have no weak spots.

“There are several parts of our car, there are several parts of our team, that we can improve on, and that’s a good thing, because as competitive as what we are right now, I know I need to get better in qualifying. I said that last year at this time. There’s lots of things that I could do to be better and there’s lots of things that we can do as a team to be better.

"So my focus, when Monday comes around, is what I need to do to execute all of those things.”

Ford team owner Jack Roush, who watched Rick Hendrick run off with all the marbles once more, said the way ahead is clear.

“You have to make fewer mistakes than they do and be better at spending your money,” Roush said. “There’s enough money to do what you need to do here, but the main thing is spending money on the things that you have got enough time to affect a good result and a good solution to the problems and challenges you’ve got. That’s what we have to do.

“Last year as we made our plans for 2010, we dared to be great as it related to our simulations, and we didn’t get it done right and that put us behind this year for six months before we got it fixed and then got the confidence in it. But we have got to tear up as all of the teams do over the winter this year to try to make things better, otherwise you get left behind.”

Unless you’re Jimmie Johnson.

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.