Six down. One to go.
Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt beckon.
It would be foolish to punctuate Jimmie Johnson’s sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship Sunday with an exclamation point. A comma is more appropriate.
The California-cool 38-year-old driver is not done and may not be even if — some say “when” — he matches the record of seven shared by stock-car racing royalty.
Denny Hamlin capped a painful, injury-interrupted campaign by driving his No. 11 FedEx Toyota to a healing, season-ending victory in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hamlin’s triumph, by 8/10ths of a second over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, kept alive his streak of winning at least once in each of his eight full-time Sprint Cup seasons.
But while Hamlin did finish second to Johnson in the 2010 Chase for the Cup, NASCAR’s premier championship remains elusive. Why that’s so should not be a mystery, he said.
“Unfortunately, we’re racing during the Jimmie Johnson era,” said Hamlin, who will celebrate his 33rd birthday Monday. “Being out there and racing with him, I can say that I think he’s the best that there ever was. He’s racing against competition that’s tougher than this sport’s ever seen.”
After nine of the 10 Chase for the Cup races, Johnson had rendered where he finished Sunday to footnote status, as long as it wasn’t 24th or worse. For the record, it was ninth, giving him a final points cushion of 19 over Kenseth.
Johnson’s six championships in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet have come in a spectacular span of eight seasons. Characteristically, he deflected a question about the quest to reach a level of greatness achieved before by only Petty, the “King,” and Earnhardt, the “Intimidator.”
“Time will tell,” he said. He suggested that the inescapable debate be postponed until after he hangs up his helmet. But for the record, both Petty and Earnhardt achieved his sixth championship in his 15th Cup season. Johnson has hoisted his half-dozen trophies in 12.
Ironically, for a stretch Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked stout enough in the No. 88 Chevrolet to court victory while Johnson was jousting with a place in history shared by his late father.
Earnhardt Jr., a teammate to Johnson in the powerful Rick Hendrick Motorsports operation against which all others are measured, dogged Kenseth to the checkered flag but settled for third place.
Johnson, who entered the finale with a hefty 28-point advantage over Kenseth, hung out in the top five for many of the 267 laps of Homestead’s banked 1.5-mile oval.
Only once did his grasp on the crown appear threatened by the “anything can happen” racing pothole that rarely afflicts the No. 48 operation.
The scare occurred when four-time champion Jeff Gordon spun the tires while positioned on the front row alongside Hamlin on a Lap 194 restart.
Kenseth smacked into the back of Gordon, and Johnson accordioned into Kenseth. All wrestled their cars under control and motored on without the melee that might have occurred.
“Something happened in front of us in our [outside] lane and had everyone stacked up,” Johnson recounted.
“I got hit from behind, then got into the 20 [Kenseth]. We were both out of control, and I thought, ‘Man, this is going to be wild.’ ’’
Johnson, with so much at stake, eased out of the fast lane once he straightened the No. 48 to make certain the damage to the fender hadn’t severely affected handling and wouldn’t cut his left front tire.
“Shoot, we went from sixth to 27th pretty quickly,” he said.
“I knew our car was plenty good enough to drive back up there.”
Kenseth darted off the pole position to snatch the lead and drove the entire race intent on making a statement.
He wound up leading a race-high 144 laps, more than half. His mission was to remain in position to capitalize on any bad luck for Johnson. But he didn’t expect that.
Even as runner-up, Kenseth smiled as broadly as if he had won. “I’m super-happy for Denny,” he said enthusiastically. “He really needed that.”
Tracking both Kenseth and Johnson from start to finish wasn’t that difficult because, except for Johnson’s momentary retreat after contact, Kenseth rarely was outside the top three and Johnson almost always had him in sight.
The only other rival who retained a remote but mathematical shot at catching Johnson, Kevin Harvick, climaxed his 14-year association with Richard Childress Racing with a 10th-place finish.
Eight caution periods that slowed the field parade-style for 37 laps periodically interrupted the action. But all resulted from debris or single-car spins. The one incident that might have been severe involved Paul Menard and his pit crew.
A fire broke out in the area of Menard’s right rear tire, and it was blazing when he reached his pit stall at the top of pit road. As a tire changer and crew with fire extinguishers rushed toward the damaged area, the tire exploded in a huge cloud of dark gray smoke and the crewmen. None was injured, however.