Everyone knew how Jimmie Johnson could drive with the lead, but experts and cynics were waiting to see how Johnson would drive without the lead. Pretty darn good, as it turns out.
Johnson entered today's NASCAR season finale trailing Denny Hamlin by 15 points. Yet, at the end of the day, Johnson finished second in the race and came away with his fifth straight season title. Carl Edwards won the race in South Florida, followed by Johnson and then Kevin Harvick. Hamlin finished 14th.
Some quick facts: Johnson became the first driver since the new points format started in 2004 to win the championship while trailing going into the last race of the season. It was the 10th title for owner Rick Hendrick, more than any other owner in NASCAR history. In major sportrs, only the New York Yankees and Boston Celtics have won five straight titles.
Here is the AP recap of the race:
HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson wasn't the best all year. Not even close.
When it mattered, though, he couldn't be beat.
For the fifth consecutive year.
Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick took the champion all the way to the edge this season, waging the most serious threats yet to Johnson's reign atop NASCAR. Only the outcome didn't change, and Johnson maintained his ironclad hold on the Sprint Cup.
Johnson became the first driver in the seven-year history of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship to overcome a points deficit in the season finale, finishing second Sunday to race winner Carl Edwards while winning his record fifth consecutive title.
He became 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.