Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Monday, November 22, 2010

History Again: Johnson Wins Fifth Straight Cup

Midway through the race at Phoenix -- when Denny Hamlin was dominating and Jimmie Johnson was mired in the back end of the top 10 -- I began thinking my pre-Chase pick to win the Sprint Cup was up in smoke.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, picking Johnson and the No. 48 team. They'd won the last four, and it felt like a smart pick to go with that team unless and until someone beat them. And at the time, it looked like Hamlin and the No. 11 team were about to do that.

Then the fuel gamble at Phoenix happened. And 24 laps into Sunday's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hamlin made contact with Greg Biffle and slid through the grass, damaging the right front corner of his splitter. His crew fought valiantly to fix the damage, but the car was never the same.

Johnson, meanwhile, had a relatively easy day of it (even when his pit crew lost him spots in the pits), finishing second to Carl Edwards and clinching his fifth straight Sprint Cup Series championship. Johnson is now third all-time in titles, behind Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, who each have seven.

No, you did not read that wrong.

We can debate the validity of Johnson's titles with relation to Earnhardt and Petty, since they were won under different formats, later. But the fact remains that Johnson is among the best in the sport's modern era, and he's eclipsed even his mentor, Jeff Gordon, since he now has one more championship under his belt.

But the way that Johnson won this title, pushed like no other time during his run by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, makes this one so remarkable. After Hamlin won at Martinsville and Texas, taking the points lead in the latter race before so thoroughly dominating Phoenix, it was easy to say Hamlin had it in the bag.

Even though he was only up by 15 points heading into Homestead, Hamlin seemed like a good pick; after all, the leader heading into the final race hadn't lost since that epic three-way battle in 1992.

But Hamlin could never recover from his early incident. Though he won a series-high eight races this season, doubling his career total, Hamlin came up 39 points short -- having a bad day at the worst possible time.

Still, look out for Hamlin in 2011. Sometimes you have to lose a championship before you win one.

The amazing thing about Johnson's run this year was how consistent he ran once the Chase started. Consider the finishes: 25th, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 5th and 2nd. That's one finish outside the top 10 and seven top-5s. Johnson may have only won one race, but he was more consistent than either Hamlin or Harvick.

It also helped that crew chief Chad Knaus had a little extra motivation thanks to some trash talk from Hamlin's crew chief Mike Ford after the Texas race. Knaus admitted after Sunday's race how much those comments bothered him, and he turned that into motivation to go out and get this title.

Little tip to the No. 11 team and everyone else; trash-talking the No. 48 team will backfire on you. Especially if you've yet to actually win a championship.

Can Johnson make it six in a row next season? No reason to think he can't, though I think Harvick and Hamlin will have something to say about it. Don't forget about Edwards, either; ending 2010 with back-to-back wins could catapult Edwards back into championship contention in 2011.

Next season could prove to be just as competitive and exciting as this year, which should excite any NASCAR fan. But before we look ahead to 2011, we'd be remiss if we didn't give proper due to Johnson for the history he made in 2010.

Mad props, JJ.

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