Easy driver

Jay Hart
Yahoo! Sports

HOMESTEAD, Fla – The craziest thing about Jimmie Johnson's second straight championship is how easy he made it look.

In a playoff where Jeff Gordon could not have been any better – which is saying something – Johnson won going away, claiming the 2007 title by 77 points, the widest margin in the four-year history of the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

To offer a little perspective, Gordon set a NASCAR modern-era record for most top-10s in a season (30 in 36 races), had 21 top fives and ended the 10-race Chase with an average finish of 5.1.

Yet he lost.

"I'll be honest with you, I'll take a 5.1 average the rest of my career in the Chase," Gordon said. "I'm pretty sure that'll win me a few championships."

As dejected as Gordon was, he was even more shell-shocked. And why not. You're not supposed to lose when you hit .500, shoot 70 percent or bowl a 295 game, which is pretty much what Gordon did. But that's exactly what's happened. At his best, Gordon – Jeff Freaking Gordon – was bested by a better man.

"It was difficult," Johnson said, "but we knew we were up against the best in business."

Actually, it was Gordon who was up against the best in the business. For as great as the four-time champion has been, he's no longer No. 1 in the garage. That distinction now goes to Johnson, end of discussion.

The question now is: How high can he go?

Prior to winning last year's title, the question surrounding Johnson was: Could he win a title? He'd been so close before, finishing no worse than fifth in each of his first four seasons, including a pair of runner-ups. He was quickly becoming the Phil Mickelson of the NASCAR world &ndash a guy with all the talent but an inability to claim the big one.

But unlike Mickelson, who hasn't been able to take that first major championship win and run with it, Johnson's learned from losing and now is learning by winning. He's not only stepped out of the shadow cast by the Tiger of his sport, he's casting one of his own. And as odd as this may sound, Gordon is now in it.

"I think before we won last year's championship, we didn't know where to apply things and where to work on things," Johnson said earlier this week. "Until you win a championship, you have a lot of question marks – what's important?

"After winning last year's championship, it was easier for us to see the direction we need to go, and the direction we need to follow. And I think that's due to experience. We've had a great run, and I don't see it changing any time soon."

Who does?

Considering how Johnson demoralized the entire field – "I'll be honest, I really thought that as aggressive as they were being, you know, it was going to bite them," Gordon said. "And man, if they didn't pull it off." – it's time to start wondering if it will be Johnson, not Gordon, who will make a serious challenge at the record seven championships won by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

"I really do," team owner Rick Hendrick said when asked if he thinks we're entering the Jimmie Johnson era. "When you look at how smart he is and how aggressive he drives, I think his talent and the way he approaches racing – how he goes to work out Monday morning after a race on Sunday – he's as determined as anybody I've ever seen in a race car. I just don’t see anything that's gonna slow Jimmie down."

And that's not crazy talk. That's coming from the mouth of the man who ushered in the Jeff Gordon era.