HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Jimmie Johnson now stands alone as the only driver in NASCAR's 61-year history to win four straight Cup championships. After once again dismissing the competition with relative ease, the question now becomes how long can he keep his reign going?
Needing to finish only 25th or better in Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch the title, Johnson came home fifth in what proved to be an anti-climactic finish. That's because the victory parade was never in doubt.
As he'd done in each of his three previous championship runs, Johnson used a combination of domination and an uncanny knack for avoiding danger to provide ample breathing room from his Chase competitors. His only blemish in the 10-race Chase was a wreck three weeks ago at Texas, where he finished 38th.
Furious for putting himself in danger at Texas after a poor qualifying effort, Johnson responded the following week by leading the most laps en route to winning the playoff's penultimate race. That all but clinched the championship.
Fifty-year-old Mark Martin hung tough throughout, but ultimately fell short again – this time by 141 points. Martin, who wound up 12th Sunday, has now finished second in the standings five times, tying him with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for the most ever runner-up finishes.
Johnson, meanwhile, shows no sign of slowing down. The four career championships tie him with Jeff Gordon for third-most all time. Only Petty and Dale Earnhardt, with seven each, have won more titles.
Considering how unyielding Johnson has been and how young he is – he turned 34 in September – seven championships is not out of the question. Petty didn't win his fourth title until he was 35. Earnhardt was 39 when he won No. 4.
While some purists argue Johnson's road has been easier – Petty and Earnhardt won their titles under a season-long points system; Johnson's have come in the 10-race Chase format – there's no denying Johnson's dominance in the new era. There have been 60 races run in the six-year history of the Chase. Johnson has won 18 of them, including four more this season.
Going into 2010, Johnson has to be considered the favorite, again. Martin had a career year this season and couldn't beat him; Gordon has thrown the best he has left at him only to come up short four straight years; Carl Edwards, the consensus pick to win it this season, has regressed; Kyle Busch hasn't risen to a championship level; and Juan Pablo Montoya and Denny Hamlin are still wild cards.
Johnson is a proven commodity against all of them, and with no major changes on the horizon – Hendrick Motorsports will still provide him the best equipment and crew chief Chad Knaus will still build him competitive cars – there's no reason to think 2010 will be any different than the last four years. That is, unless someone takes Ryan Newman's advice to "dynamite" the 48 shop.
"As much as many people dislike the fact that he’s been so dominate, they deserve it," Newman said. "If and when Jimmie gets knocked off of his throne, then we’ll have something else to talk about. But in the time, he’s a deserving champion.”