Soaked in sweat, champagne and success, Jimmie Johnson celebrated yet another NASCAR championship by sipping a beer.
A six-pack would have been more appropriate.
Back on top with only two NASCAR legends left to catch, Johnson won his sixth title in eight years Sunday to stake his claim as one of the most dominant competitors in sports history. Now looming large in Johnson’s windshield is the mark of seven titles held by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
The party had barely started on No. 6 when the debate began: Where does Johnson, who on-and-off for two years has used the hashtag `6Pack’ on Twitter to describe his bid for this title, rank among NASCAR’s greats?
“I feel like this team is capable of a lot of great things. There’s still great years ahead of us,” Johnson said. “But all of that is in the future, a seventh, an eighth. I don’t want to focus on that yet. It’s not time.”
The time to rank Johnson will be when his driving career is over. But at just 38 and the youngest driver to win six titles, his career could last another decade or more.
“I have six, and we’ll see if I can get seven,” Johnson said. “Time will tell. I think we need to save the argument until I hang up the helmet, then it’s worth the argument. Let’s wait until I hang up the helmet until we really start thinking about this.”
Said crew chief Chad Knaus, who trails only Dale Inman’s eight championships in the NASCAR record books: “I don’t think we’re even close to the potential of the team yet.”
That should be devastating news to the rest of NASCAR.
There’s no telling how many drivers might have won titles had they not competed against Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team. The loser this year was Matt Kenseth, who 10 years removed from his only NASCAR championship had a career year but still came up short.
“Unfortunately, we’re racing during the Jimmie Johnson era,” said Denny Hamlin, winner of Sunday’s race. Hamlin lost the 2010 title to Johnson.
“We’re just unlucky in that sense. I think being out there and racing with him, I can say he’s the best that there ever was.”
Johnson, needing only to finish 23rd or better to spoil Kenseth’s dream season, was on cruise control most of the day at Homestead. His lone hiccup came when traffic stacked-up on a restart and he and Kenseth made slight contact, causing Johnson to plunge 15 spots in the field with damage to his fender.
Yet he still rallied to finish ninth and beat Kenseth for the title by 19 points.
“He is an amazing talent, there’s no doubt about it,” Knaus said. “He can do things with a race car that most mortals can’t. Let’s just be straight with it.”
Kenseth, needing a Johnson collapse to have any shot at the title, positioned himself to pounce should anything go awry. Kenseth led a race-high 144 laps and finished second to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin.
“It was just unbelievable year for us. Obviously, we wanted to win the championship as good as we ran all year,” said Kenseth, winner of seven races in his first season with JGR.
Kenseth’s effort just wasn’t enough against a Hendrick Motorsports team that wouldn’t be denied for a third consecutive year.
“If Jimmie would have got a flat or something, that would have been all right,” Kenseth lamented. “Never seen anything like this in the sport and probably never will again. … Maybe he’ll retire.”
Johnson won a record five straight titles from 2006 through 2010, was mathematically eliminated before the 2011 finale, but was back in the title hunt last season. Only he had a tire failure in the penultimate race at Phoenix and then a mechanical failure in the finale to lose the championship to Brad Keselowski.
His two-year drought is over, and his crew was ready for the party on the South Beach.
“You better get a sip of that (water) bottle, it’s the only healthy liquid you’re going to get all night,” Knaus radioed Johnson after he crossed the finish line.
Johnson planned to savor every moment of the celebration and his championship reign.
“This is extremely sweet. I feel like those five years were a blur. And things happen so fast,” Johnson said. “It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it or appreciate it or respect what happened. It just went by so fast it seems like. Now, I’m really going to slow things down here and enjoy it. This is so, so sweet.”
It was just as special for Hamlin, who bounced back from a fractured vertebra earlier this season that sidelined him for over a month. Hamlin hasn’t been the same since, and Sunday’s victory, his first of the year, extended his winning streak to eight seasons.
“Is the year over yet?” a grinning Hamlin asked in Victory Lane. “Man, I wanted to keep that streak alive.”
Hamlin’s celebration was brief as the victory stage was cleared for Johnson. Hamlin nearly stood atop the podium in 2010, when he took Johnson down to the wire, only to fade in the finale as Johnson claimed his record fifth consecutive title.
Now, with the sixth title, Johnson’s accomplishments resonate far beyond NASCAR.
His numbers stack up with Roger Federer, who won 16 of 27 Grand Slams from 2003-10; Michael Phelps, who won 18 gold medals in three Olympics from 2004 to 2012, and Tiger Woods, who won four consecutive majors in 2000 and 2001, and seven overall from 1999-2002.
More important to Johnson, like Michael Jordan, he now has six rings, too.
Jordan won six NBA titles from 1991-98.
“When you mention Michael’s name, he’s given me a hard time that I only won five,” Johnson said. “I can’t wait to send him a text and say, `Hey, buddy, I’ve caught up.“’
Johnson won the title this year with a 5.1 average finish over the 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship races. The mark was second only to the 5.0 average he posted in 2007 when he beat teammate Jeff Gordon for his second title.
It was four-time champion Gordon that discovered Johnson racing in the Nationwide Series in 2001 and convinced team owner Rick Hendrick to hire him for a new fourth team.
“You know, they are unbelievable and they proved it again this year just how good they are as a group, as a team,” Gordon said. “Jimmie as a driver, Chad as a crew chief, Hendrick Motorsports, everybody is just so good. But specifically, the No. 48, they just have a chemistry and a way to make incredible things happen especially at the right times. That is unbelievable – six championships.”