By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
For most of the 2010 Sprint Cup season, Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team looked vulnerable despite the fact that they were riding a streak of four straight championships.
Throughout the season and in the Chase, they admittedly didn’t show the pure speed they have in recent seasons. But when the title was on the line in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson and his team looked more invincible than vulnerable.
While Denny Hamlin, the points leader coming into the Ford 400, was involved in an early fender-banger with Greg Biffle, and third-place Kevin Harvick was caught speeding on pit road, Johnson and his team simply made their car better when it counted and finished a strong second to secure a record fifth straight Sprint Cup title and become the first champion to have entered the final Chase race without the points lead.
So much for being considered vulnerable.
“They are spectacular,” said Carl Edwards, who won the last two races of the season but finished a distant fourth in the standings. “It just looked like they didn’t make any mistakes today. They steadily made their car better and they let the other guys make mistakes…
“That is probably what they do best. They toe the line and keep progressing forward without too much emotion or too many mistakes. I think that is the thing that all of us are trying to do, be that good … I believe we really are all witnessing something that is nothing short of spectacular.”
But Edwards wouldn’t go as far as saying Johnson is invincible. “No, I feel like I’m better than him,” he said. “I mean, everybody feels like that. That’s why we race. If you get a driver out there right now that’s driving that says, ‘Oh no, Jimmie is a lot better than me,’ you don’t want that guy on your team. Obviously, they have proven that they are able to win more races and more championships than the rest of us, we just have to figure out how to do that.”
Johnson’s latest championship also was the 10th for his Hendrick Motorsports team, breaking a tie with the old Petty Enterprises team.
And his fifth title is being compared to championship streaks in other sports, such as the Boston Celtics’ streak of eight NBA titles in a row back in the 1950s and early 1960s, and the New York Yankees that won five World Series from 1949-1953, and the Montreal Canadiens who captured four Stanley Cups from 1956 to 1960.
Now, only two drivers, Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, have more championships than Johnson. They have seven apiece, which were won using a season-long points formula, while Johnson’s came in a 10-race Chase format.
Among the obvious questions in the aftermath of Johnson’s fifth title are just where he stacks up among the sport’s all-time greats and when and if he’ll move up from his current position – third on the all-time championship list – to first place.
“I don’t know if it’s in reach,” Johnson said in his champion’s interview at Homestead. “I know we are going to have chances to win championships, but you just don’t know how the year is going to unfold. You just don’t know what is going to take place. It is so tough to win championships, and it’s easy to look at us having five in a row and say, naturally, just keep doing it.
“Next year is a whole new year. There’s no telling what the challenges will be, with what we are going to face, strengths of the other teams and where we are going to be at. We are closer. There’s six and seven out there ahead of us, and we’ll work as hard as we can to do it.”
Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus said he believes his driver is as good as Earnhardt or Waltrip or Pearson or any of the great ones who have come before him.
“The guys that raced back in the day, the Earnhardts, the Waltrips, the Pearsons, the guys like that; you hear a lot of what they say about the tenacity of those drivers and how aggressive they were and how they could do things with the race car that nobody else could do,” Knaus said.
“I think if you really sat back and looked at what this guy [Johnson] can do with a race car, you would be pretty impressed. He’s been in some pretty precarious situations and driven through them. He’s put his nose in places that other people would not do and not be able to pull off.”