NASCAR: Johnson clinches sixth championship to fuel debate on his place in sport
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The comparisons with legendary drivers like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt started long before the Ford EcoBoost 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
A sixth championship in eight years Sunday only added to that discussion.
A ninth-place finish was more than enough – Johnson only needed to finish among the top 23 to clinch – for Johnson to regain his current position as the sport’s most gifted driver.
“I’m lost for words,” Johnson said. “I’m so thankful for this opportunity at Hendrick Motorsports. So thankful Jeff Gordon and Mr. [team owner Rick] Kendrick gave me this opportunity in 2002.
“I’m so excited to have the six pack.”
A victory in the Chase for the Championship appeared to be a formality going into the season-finale. A 28-point lead over Matt Kenseth was daunting, especially since each point was representative of a spot on the racetrack.
Johnson made sure he didn’t give Kenseth, or anyone else, reason to believe he wouldn’t close the deal.
“I think they do a great job of being consistent,” said race winner Denny Hamlin. “Really, I’d say with everyone else in the Chase you can almost count on them having one bad race. The 48 [Johnson], they just never have that one bad race.
“Really in all the championships, there was a couple he won when he had a bad race, but everybody else kind of screwed it up. I don’t know how to explain it, but they just don’t make any mistakes. They don’t have 20th or worse finishes that it seems like every one team has throughout the Chase, whether it be a superspeedway or whatever. You have to beat him on performance. To do that, that's really hard.”
Johnson has finished no worse than sixth during his 12 years as a full-time driver in the Sprint Cup Series. In the process, he got to a sixth championship quicker than either Petty or Earnhardt, who both won their sixth of seven championships during their 15th seasons.
Seven championships certainly are on the radar for Johnson. So are possible eighth or ninth titles.
But where that ranks him historically is a question he won’t answer until he retires.
“We’ll think about that when I’m done,” he said. “I’ll leave this for others to think about.”
Johnson won a NASCAR-record five consecutive championships starting in 2006. After finishing sixth in 2011 and third a year ago, he said this year’s title may be the best.
“This one is sweet,” he said. “I feel like those five were a blur. And things happened so fast. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate or enjoy what happened it just went by so fast. I’m going to sit back and enjoy this one.”
And let others argue about his place in the sport’s history.