Jimmie Johnson was chasing much more than a championship.
He was also chasing NASCAR history.
The most dominant driver of this decade won a record fourth consecutive championship Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he raced hard to finish fifth when 25th-place would have gotten the job done.
In doing so, Johnson joined Richard Petty (7), Dale Earnhardt (7) and teammate Jeff Gordon (4) as the only drivers to win more than three titles.
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“The cool thing is, we’re not done yet,” he warned.
All he ever wanted was a chance to race against the very best. Maybe even win a race or two.
Never did he expect to be a champion.
Especially four times over.
“I grew up on two wheels in the dirt,” the 34-year-old Californian said. “I had no clue I was going to end up here racing stock cars and doing something that had never been done before. To do something that’s never been done in the sport, and love the sport like I do and respect it like I do and the greats — Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon — to do something they have never done is so awesome.
“And to win four championships in eight years, what this team has done — this is unbelievable.”
Johnson bulldozed his way into the record books, pouncing when the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship began to pull team owner Rick Hendrick into the record books with him. Johnson’s title gave a record 12th overall championship to Hendrick, who was in North Carolina with a niece whow was undergoing an emergency liver transplant.
In his absence, Johnson, Mark Martin and Gordon celebrated a 1-2-3 finish in the final points standings, just the second time in NASCAR history a team owner has swept the standings.
“Heavy hearts and prayers with the boss man and the family,” Martin said, paying homage to Hendrick. “That sort of takes a little bit of the shine off of it. But congratulations to Hendrick Motorsports, to Jimmie Johnson — Superman — and to my team.”
Johnson now stands atop NASCAR as a one-man dynasty, much like Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Lance Armstrong in their sports.
Only Johnson hasn’t been feted under a blizzard of confetti by himself. His mighty Hendrick team rules NASCAR the way UCLA once dominated the hardwood or Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls reigned supreme.
There’s seemingly plenty of chances left for Johnson’s tag-team with crew chief Chad Knaus to keep Hendrick and the No. 48 in the title hunt for another decade.
Johnson signed a five-year contract extension to drive for Hendrick through 2015, and Knaus has insisted the No. 48 team can keep this pace for the next several years.
Johnson doesn’t want to take anything for granted along the way.
“I don’t know if we’ll win another championship,” he said. “I feel in my heart we’ll be competitive, but at some point in time, we won’t be that team.”
That’s why Johnson never let up in pursuit of the championship. He raced hard for wins in nine of the 10 Chase races, and for all 400 miles at Homestead, where he threatened to try to run down the leaders to better his eventual fifth-place finish.
It made for a sometimes testy drive into history for Johnson, who was at times annoyed at rival drivers and even Gordon, the mentor and teammate who helped him land his job with Hendrick Motorsports.
Nobody gave Johnson anything, either. The other drivers raced hard around him all day, making Johnson earn every point in a race won by Denny Hamlin, who established himself as a driver to watch in 2010 by winning a career-high four races this season.
Hamlin also managed to keep pace with Johnson at times but fell out of contention with three DNFs.
“We’re going to be there, I promise you,” Hamlin said. “I promise you, the next couple years, we’re going to win the championship. But right now, there’s no one more deserving than Jimmie.”
Johnson won seven races this season, four after the Chase began in September. In fact, since the Chase format began in 2004, Johnson has won 18 of 60 Chase races.
He’s done it by almost never choosing the safe route. He did it just once this year, at Talladega when he ran near the back of the field most of the day to avoid the trouble at the Alabama track.
Only the joke was on him when his problems popped up a week later, at Texas, where he was wrecked on the third lap and lost 111 points from his cushion over Martin. It still left him with a cozy 78-point margin headed into last weekend’s race at Phoenix, where he probably could have laid back and protected his lead.
Instead, he pounced and earned a dominating victory that set the stage for an easy Sunday.
“The pressure of winning the fourth didn’t really hit me until hitting the wall at Texas,” he admitted. “And then it was like ‘Oh, man.’ It was a great reality check.”
Of course, he couldn’t get off the gas.
After several tense laps chasing Gordon for fifth place — Johnson at one point complained over his radio “I let him go, now why won’t he just go somewhere!” — he asked Knaus if he had enough time to catch Hamlin and the leaders.
Johnson didn’t like being told no by his crew chief.
“Is that a dare?” he asked Knaus.
“No. That is a fact,” Knaus replied.
So is Johnson’s place in history, which seems to be undervalued despite 47 victories since 2002.
He’s never finished lower than fifth in the final standings and actually had a shot at winning the championship in 2004 and 2005 — only to fall short in the finale.
“Jimmie is an incredible, incredible talent. He is the most underrated driver in this garage,” Knaus said. “That guy can do things in a race car that I’ve never seen before. I hope this proves it to everybody.”
His competitors insist time will take care of Johnson’s legacy, but they continue to marvel at his success.
“If you would have told me four years ago that someone would win four championships in a row, I would have told you you were crazy,” said Jeff Burton, who finished second in Sunday’s race.
Even Gordon, who won four quick titles early in his career but has been shut out since 2001, is impressed.
“As a competitor, that Johnson ticks me off. As a friend, teammate, fellow car owner, they’re amazing,” Gordon said. “I never thought in my career, in my lifetime, I’d see somebody win four in a row. To see it happening right in front of your eyes makes it even more extraordinary.”