Johnson Scores Sixth Championship
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on November 17, 2013 | 6:30 P.M. EST
(Photo: Getty Images)
Johnson claimed the crown with a ninth-place finish that seemed effortless until a restart about 75 laps from the finish that had Johnson asking about damage to his left front fender and crew chief Chad Knaus holding his head.
Jeff Gordon spun his tires on the restart and that slowed the top line where Johnson was. He jammed the brakes and was hit from behind, knocking his left front fender into the right rear of Matt Kenseth’s car. Johnson fell from eighth to 23rd. While his left front fender was crinkled, the damage didn’t rub his tire. A caution shortly after that gave the team time to pull the fender further away from the tire.
Johnson’s biggest challenge then became running in traffic. He had spent much of the race in the top five and had to thread through traffic, especially on restarts.
It’s not surprising Johnson had issues. He noted earlier this week how most of his title runs have featured some sort of adversity in this season finale. The key, he said, would be how he and his team reacted.
Knaus took care of that, telling the team on the radio at one point, “deep breath guys.’’
It worked. Johnson remained calm. He didn’t raise his voice on the radio during the race until the end when he celebrated his sixth championship in the past eight seasons - a period that will be known as the Johnson era.
Otherwise, this was a typical November Sunday drive for Johnson - one that ended with Johnson by hoisting a trophy.
Johnson now is one title away from tying Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most championships, a record few thought anyone could match.
And Johnson has plenty of time to reach that mark or go beyond it.
“He’s liable to go to eight to 10 (championships),’’ Petty said this week.
Earnhardt won his sixth title at age 42 years, 6 months. Petty won his sixth title at 38 years and 3 months. Johnson’s sixth crown comes at 38 years, 2 months.
For each championship, Johnson has had Knaus as his crew chief, providing one of the sport’s most potent combinations.
“We've been very fortunate to have been together for a long time, and it's been a lot of work,’’ Knaus said. “We've had some really good times, we've had some really stressful times together.
“The good thing we've got is that I've got 100 percent confidence in Jimmie, and I feel like he has the same for me, and we know that at the end of the day, all we're trying to do is to make each other better with any of our constructive criticism, any of our feedback or any of our suggestions. It's a really nice environment to work in when you know that your driver has your back 100 percent.’’
That was evident throughout Sunday’s race as Johnson sought to fine-tune his Chevrolet. His car was so good he ran in the top 10 much of the event.
Johnson’s brilliance late in the season again showed this year. He entered Sunday’s race with a 4.7 average finish in this Chase.
Although Kenseth won the first two races of the Chase, he couldn’t keep pace with Johnson in the final weeks. Kenseth led after Charlotte before they traded the points lead the next three races. Johnson took the lead for good after winning Texas. He pulled further ahead when Kenseth had a woeful run at Phoenix the following week, setting up Sunday’s race as more of a coronation than a competition for the championship.
Other than a four-race stretch in August and early September where Johnson finished no better than 28th, he’s been stellar this season, scoring six victories - the seventh time in the last eight years that he’s won at least five races in a season.
None of this might have happened had Johnson not gotten a chance with Hendrick Motorsports despite a Nationwide career that didn’t foretell such success in Cup.
Car owner Rick Hendrick said his late son, Ricky, told him about Johnson and encouraged him to consider Johnson for a ride someday.
“My son told me he was going to be a superstar,’’ Hendrick said. “(Johnson) didn't show that in the Nationwide Series, but we liked Jimmie a lot. He was just such a classy guy.
“Then when Jeff raced against him at Michigan (in Nationwide), Jeff said that he was special, he had a lot of talent.’’
Johnson remembers that race even now.
“He was in fifth and I was in sixth, and I did everything in my power to get by that car,’’ Johnson said. “(Gordon) was a hero of mine, and I wanted to somehow be seen and noticed out there and found a way by.’’
And found a job with one of the top organization’s in the sport’s history.
“We took a chance,’’ Hendrick said. “We had no idea. I mean, it was no reason, no way to look at him that he could be that good. We didn't see what we saw in Jeff Gordon early on when he was racing in the Nationwide Series. You thought it was there, but you didn't know it was going to be this good.’’
So good that another season ended with Johnson and Hendrick celebrating a championship. Again.