Jimmie Johnson, center, celebates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in Homestead, Fla., on Sunday. (AP Photo)
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Back on top with only two NASCAR greats left to catch, Jimmie Johnson won his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship in eight years Sunday and staked his claim as one of the most dominant competitors in sports history.
Johnson, needing only to finish 23rd or better to spoil Matt Kenseth's career season, was on cruise control most of the day at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson's 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.
He rallied to finish ninth and beat Kenseth for the title by 19 points.
Now looming large in Johnson's windshield is the mark of seven titles held by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt. Johnson barely got to finish his celebratory burnouts before the debate began: Where does "Six-Pack" rank among the greats in NASCAR?
"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."
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 Denny 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," crew chief Chad 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.
So Hamlin could commiserate with new teammate Kenseth, who won set career marks this year in wins, poles, laps led and average start.
"Unfortunately, we're racing during the Jimmie Johnson era," Hamlin said. "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. He's racing against competition that is tougher than this sport's ever seen."
The numbers back up Hamlin's claim.
• Johnson is the youngest driver to win six titles, beating Petty to the mark by 83 days. He's also the fastest to six titles, as neither Petty nor Earnhardt did it in an eight-year span.
• His 66 Sprint Cup wins since 2002 are 30 more than any other driver has won in the last 11 years.
But his crew chief Knaus isn't too shabby, either.
Knaus ranks second on the all-time championship list behind Dale Inman, who won eight. But Knaus is the only crew chief to win more than two titles in a row. His 64 career wins are all with Johnson.
Darian Grubb, who was part of three of Johnson's titles and won his own championship in 2011 as Tony Stewart's crew chief, said the No. 48 team never settles.
"Its consistency, always being there at the finish," said Grubb, now Hamlin's crew chief. "You have to be able to get that top-10 run, just have to be able to do that."
Indeed, 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."