HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick sat side-by-side in silence, watching yet another Jimmie Johnson celebration play out on television.
One had dominated the regular season, the other took charge of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
But in the end, with the title on the line, neither could wrest the Sprint Cup from Johnson’s ironclad grasp.
Johnson withstood the most serious challenges yet to his reign atop NASCAR on Sunday, winning his fifth consecutive championship in perhaps the most impressive fashion. He was challenged for the first time in years and had to deliver in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a track that had played host to four previous coronations for the best driver of this decade.
“I’m sure Denny is disappointed and Kevin, as well. Those guys put up a great fight and when it’s this close, it’s got to stink,” Johnson said.
Johnson became the first driver in the seven-year history of the Chase to overcome a points deficit in the season finale, finishing second to race winner Carl Edwards. It made him only the third driver to overcome a points deficit in the season’s final race and win the championship since 1975.
The final margin was 39 points over Hamlin, and 41 over Harvick, who finished third in the race.
So despite all the wins — 53 of them over nine seasons — and all the celebrations, this one at Homestead-Miami Speedway was obviously very different. Usually so calm and workmanlike behind the wheel, Johnson was exuberant as he crossed the finish line, pumping his fists in the car while screaming “this is unbelievable!” over and over.
“I’ve always told you the first championship, the first win, that stuff has meant the most to me. This one, I think this takes the lead,” Johnson said. “It’s not that the other Chases weren’t competitive. We were stronger in the previous two Chases, at least, but this one, I am just so proud.”
Maybe because for the first time since his reign began in 2006, Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team seemed vulnerable. Harvick was the most consistent driver of the 26-race “regular season,” and Hamlin, with a series-best eight wins this year, was the popular pick to dethrone Johnson.
Hamlin carried a 15-point lead into the finale, but struggled the entire race and turned Sunday into a battle of which driver would make the fewest mistakes.
It ultimately was Johnson, who overcame a few slow pit stops by a team that’s been in the spotlight since crew chief Chad Knaus benched his team in the middle of a race at Texas three weeks ago. The next day, the crews for Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon were swapped for the final two races of the year.
The No. 48 team rose above all the drama, even after a mid-race stop cost Johnson five spots.
“I think this year we showed what this team is made of,” he said. “At times this season we didn’t have the most speed, but we had the most heart.”
Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing team felt otherwise, especially as they outperformed Johnson during the Chase. But poor fuel mileage last week in Phoenix kept it tight headed into Sunday, and he had a terrible race when he needed only a clean run.
Contact with Greg Biffle very early in the race sent Hamlin into a spin and damaged the front of his car. He dropped to 37th by the restart and had to work all day to finish 14th.
“We had a great year, we won the most races that we ever won, we contended like we’ve never contended before and just circumstances took us out of this one,” Hamlin said.
Harvick, meanwhile, took the lead on a round of pit stops with 80 laps to go, but was flagged for speeding as he entered pit road. It dropped him to 29th, and he was still upset with the call after the race.
“I don’t think that penalty will ever settle in my stomach,” Harvick said, insisting that “only a handful of people” get to see the pit road speeds. “I won’t ever settle for that.”
But he wasn’t devastated by the defeat, pointing to all the gains made this year by Richard Childress Racing. A year after failing to put any cars into the Chase, RCR had three in the field and Harvick, winner of two races, led the points for most of the regular season.
“It’s a 180 for us,” Harvick said.
While Harvick could find the bright spots, Hamlin, sitting next to him at the podium, had a harder time finding much to be happy about. With a vacant look and muffled answers, he vowed to be back stronger next season.
“My job is to work in the offseason to do everything I can to be better and, you know, I know every year that I am in the Cup series, I’m going to be better than I was the previous year,” Hamlin said. “We’re going to keep working and go get them next year.”
As both drivers discussed their day, Johnson’s championship celebration was shown overhead and both drivers watched portions of the presentation.
Who could blame them? It was history.
The fifth title moved Johnson past Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon for most titles among active drivers. He now ranks third on the career list behind seven-time champions and Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
“Finally, finally, after being able to pull this off, he’ll get the respect and the rewards that he deserves,” Knaus said.
The championship was a record 10th for Hendrick Motorsports, which broke a tie with Petty Enterprise for most in NASCAR. Johnson and HMS also joined three other pro teams — the Boston Celtics, New York Yankees and Montreal Canadiens — to win five consecutive titles. The Celtics are the all-time leaders with eight consecutive NBA titles.
“Somebody has got to win it, and I’m glad it was us,” team owner Rick Hendrick said, noting “this race was so up and down. It was like who’s going to screw up the most?”
Not Johnson and Knaus, who once again showed why they’ve been so good for so long.