NASCAR couldn’t have asked for a better championship battle, the closest in its history, with all three contenders in the running until the final laps. No matter what you may think about NASCAR, and as much as big-time American stock car racing is struggling with declining crowds and TV ratings, you can’t deny that it puts on a good show – probably the best in racing.
Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick all ran into trouble at some point in the season finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. All three looked likely champions at different stages of the race, but Johnson came through to take a record fifth consecutive Sprint Cup, narrowly defeating Hamlin and Harvick after a marathon season of 36 races over 10 months. Carl Edwards won at Homestead-Miami with Johnson finishing second, Harvick third and Hamlin 14th after a series of adventures.
Johnson is an excellent driver, a true racer and a good guy, and his fifth straight championship is a tremendous accomplishment. Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt are NASCAR’s greatest champions both with seven titles, but neither won five in a row. Statistically, in terms of starts versus championships, Johnson is well ahead of Petty and Earnhardt. At 35, he has raced Sprint Cup cars for 10 years, all with Rick Hendrick’s team, and he probably has at least another five or more strong seasons within his reach.
“I can’t believe it,” he grinned. “Four was amazing. Now I’ve got to figure out what to say about what it means to win five of these things. It’s pretty damn awesome, I can tell you that. Sometimes we weren’t the fastest this year, but we had the most heart and I think I enjoyed this season more than any of the others.”
Johnson’s fifth title is also the 10th – and a record – for Rick Hendrick’s four-car Chevrolet team. Hendrick started his team in 1984 and won his previous championships with Jeff Gordon (1995, ’97-98 and 2001) and Terry Labonte (in 1996).
Championship runner-up Hamlin drives for Joe Gibbs’s three-car Toyota team. The 30-year-old has been racing Cup cars for five years, all with Gibbs’s team. He won eight races this year, more than anyone else, and overshadowed his more hyped team-mate Kyle Busch. “We had a great year,” said Hamlin. “We won more races than we’ve ever won, and it was only circumstances that took us out.”
Hamlin believes Johnson and Hendrick’s team weren’t quite as powerful as in recent years: “I don’t think they showed the strength this year that they have in the past. That opened up the door to teams like us, and a few others, to win a lot of races. We really stepped up our programme the last couple of years. It’s a good feeling to go to the track knowing you can win on any given week.
“My job is to work in the off-season to do everything I can better. I know every year I’m going to be better than I was the previous year. So we’re going to take this team and keep working and go get ‘em next year.”
Harvick is equally confident of his chances of beating Johnson next year. “We went down swinging,” he said. “We came here to go as fast as we could and try to win. We did everything we wanted to do today except win the race, so this is a great spot to start building for a consistent championship next year.”
There’s now a brief breather, a few weeks off for the teams, and then it’s back to it to prepare for Daytona next February. The hope is the grandstands will be full and the TV ratings will at least level out.