Johnson’s march into history rolls on

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Two oversized Styrofoam coolers had been packed with beer and ice early Sunday morning, and when the moment came – Jimmie Johnson earning a fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship – out came the coolers. Alongside were sleeves of simple blue plastic cups, the kind that even when filled with Bud Light wouldn’t offend television cameras for a moment when Gatorade isn’t quite enough.

This was experience meeting confidence, the blueprint for everything the 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team is all about. The team wanted to ensure that when they stood amid the falling confetti and setting sun of this glorious afternoon in south Florida, they covertly could slam Bud Lights without getting in trouble.

Their driver had entered the season’s final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway trailing Denny Hamlin by 15 points, in the middle of a three-way battle for the title. Still, the belief that a fifth title was inevitable remained the same.

The 48 car knows how to win. The 48 car knows how to celebrate.

Jimmie Johnson celebrates his fifth straight championship.

In the end, that was enough for arguably the greatest triumph of Johnson’s half-decade dominance of NASCAR. Just like it was all year, Johnson didn’t have the best car Sunday. Just like it was all year, Johnson didn’t have the best pits.

Just like the last four years, he won anyway, coolly avoiding the mental and physical errors that Hamlin and Kevin Harvick couldn’t, digging deep when the championship was on the line and, when it was over, displaying a level of greatness that should never be questioned.

“It’s spectacular,” vanquished competitor Carl Edwards said. “I think we are all witnessing something that is nothing short of spectacular.”

Jimmie Johnson earned this one by outdriving the rest of the field; so dominating Hamlin and Harvick he could virtually coast on in. What had for more than 200 laps been a frantic, hectic and heated battle ended with the others fading due to self-inflicted wounds.

Suddenly it was all over but the beer drinking.

Johnson had spent the week leading up to the season finale trying to convey an oversized confidence. He kept saying he preferred to be behind. He kept noting that the pressure was on Hamlin because you never want to be the guy that choked away a final-race Cup lead. He kept showing up at parties and talking about past victory bashes and hoping the magnitude of the moment might weigh down on the others.

In the end it did.

Hamlin said he shook off Johnson’s chatter and avoided getting nervous until he put on his fire suit an hour before the start of the race.

“That’s when it hit me,” Hamlin said.

And that’s when it didn’t hit Johnson.

“I knew today there was a feeling that was going to show up, and I knew how to deal with it,” Johnson said. “[I thought], ‘OK, there it is. There’s something on the line.’ Denny hadn’t been there before. … Experience is everything.”

Hamlin never could hit his potential for a stretch long enough to win this race. He got caught up in an early bump, spun and lost ground. He missed a preferred pit stop due to confusion with his crew. Just like a week ago when what could’ve been an insurmountable lead was lost in a fuel mileage gaffe, there were too many errors on a day he needed to be championship-perfect.

Meanwhile, Harvick had a car that had threatened to turn the entire thing upside down, potentially moving from third to first in the standings and ending Johnson’s streak. Then Harvick got caught speeding on pit road and went to the back of the pack. When he battled back into late contention, he spun out Kyle Busch and caused the caution that all but assured Johnson’s victory.

All the while, Johnson was the picture of determination.

His focus was at another level. On Sunday morning he got a text from crew chief Chad Knaus that read, simply, “Nothing else matters.” Johnson just nodded.

Denny Hamlin's crew works on his car after a spin on Lap 24

“We were in that space mentally all week long,” Johnson said.

Then he went out and shook off two poor pit stops and a good but not great car that rarely flew around the track to grind out pass after pass. He stayed near the front, avoided trouble and let the others fall apart in the clutch.

The general reaction remains that Johnson wins because of crew chief Chad Knaus’ genius or owner Rick Hendrick’s investment or the setup of the Chase or who knows what else. He isn’t beloved by all. He isn’t respected by enough.

That will change in time. Johnson himself believes it will take the inevitable loss and then some time before what he’s doing right now will be fully appreciated. Really, this race and this Chase ought to accelerate that.

“People say they hate me but they respect me,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I had a guy wearing an ‘I Hate 48’ shirt, but he gave me a thumbs-up. … A driver or a certain person shouldn’t be up there saying, ‘I’m great.’ But I’m proud of what we accomplished.

“Five in a row, no one has ever done it.”

This was a transcendent performance. Johnson pitched the perfect game in the final race, making every right move and avoiding every foolish one. It was a thing of beauty to watch, so steady yet swift it felt like the Cup went from competitive to inevitable in an instant.

That’s greatness.

They hauled Johnson, Knaus and Hendrick over to a flagpole near the start/finish line where the three would raise a ceremonial flag representing the 48 car. As they waited for the cue to begin, they huddled and shared a series of private glances that led to a group laugh. From afar they looked like three guys who had just figured out how to steal a title in a year they weren’t at their best.

“This one, I’m just so proud,” Johnson said. “There were times on Saturday nights we’d get together to discuss our race car after practice and we had some tough discussions.

“There’s a different feeling about it. I think we were very relieved for the first one and very, very excited. This was a different vibe.”

That’s how streaks go on, though. That’s how dynasties survive. That’s how the enormity of the 48 cast a shadow over the field that made all fumble away their hopes. Everyone else seemed to know, down deep, that this was inevitable. Jimmie Johnson just was going to keep coming and coming and driving and driving.

No one yet has found the fortitude to change this march of history.

Soon Johnson was back to kissing his wife and 4-month-old daughter. Korbel had been sprayed in every direction. If you thought the emotion of winning would get old, you didn’t appreciate the fight this one took.

Some of his high school buddies were snapping photos like it was the first time. Family friend, actress Angie Harmon, couldn’t stop crying. His mother-in-law couldn’t stop beaming.

And his team couldn’t stop pouring. They just opened another cooler, brought out some more blue incognito cups and kept the assembly line going.

Half a decade of dominance into this historic run and the cold celebratory beer tastes better than ever.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Nov 21, 2010