History was made this past Sunday when Jimmie Johnson became the first driver in NASCAR’s 53-year history to have won five-consecutive Sprint Cup Series Championships. Entering the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson trailed Denny Hamlin by 15 points but was able to run a mistake-free race and finish second behind Carl Edwards, guaranteeing him yet another title. In years past, the last few races of the Chase were anticlimactic because he was so dominant and had essentially all but locked up the points title, but this season things were different. Despite winning six races he had a hard time putting away the competition and kept the door open for others to catch up. Hamlin led NASCAR with eight wins this season and made Johnson work hard for his fifth title, but in the end the 15-point deficit wasn’t enough to hold him back. Now, Johnson has his sights on another record, which both the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty hold, seven NASCAR championships.
Jimmie Johnson joined the Scott Van Pelt Show on ESPN Radio to talk about why this championship means the most to him, what led to the decision to use Jeff Gordon’s pit crew for the last few races and whether that is going to be a permanent move, and whether Carl Edwards’s post-race celebration bothered him.
Why this championship means the most to him:
“In other years, in ’06 it wasn’t this way but we had to come from behind early in the Chase, to be at different points during the season and to have so many competitive teams on our heels, even ahead of us at times had a different feel for it. I don’t think we were as sharp this year. We didn’t have as much speed as we had in years past and didn’t have control of things we kind of had there. So to fight through it all and really win this thing with heart and grit was so cool.”
What led to the decision to use Jeff Gordon’s pit crew for the last few races and whether that is going to be a permanent move:
“Inside of NASCAR you are allowed to have four car teams per owner, and we have four teams with Dale Earnhardt Jr., myself, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. The way our shop is designed we have all of these buildings that build the components engines, parts fees and all of that stuff, and it goes to the two assembly shops, the 24 and 48 are housed in one building, the 5 and the 88 are in the other. Inside of those shops those guys don’t know which car they are working on that day. They are both 24 guys and the 48, so when we go to the track we break off into our groups of 15 guys that really work on the car at the track and seven go over the wall, I just gave you way too many numbers, I am sorry. The seven that go over the wall, my guys, were having some troubles and the 24 car had had a crash and his guys had been on fire and it was a good opportunity for us to bring them on board to kind of help our guys for that day and kind of relieve them. It wasn’t an easy decision and it certainly didn’t go over well, it’s the 48 guys and they want to be in there, but as the dust settled they knew and understood why the decision was made, and they are professional athletes, they understand. You see it happen to a starting pitcher or any pitcher. When somebody is hitting on them they are going to pull him. We made that move, which was uncharacteristic for our team although it has been done in the sport, a lot was made of it. I think the Phoenix race following that Texas event where we made the change mid-race, they kept us in the race that day. We did not have the speed on the track that we needed and their pit stops kept us in the top-three or four all day long and really helped us get the points that we needed to.”
Whether Carl Edwards’s post-race celebration bothered him:
“I knew from years past that the winner gets to celebrate first on the front stretch and the way that he parked his car I thought I could do donuts around him and then if we could figure out his backflip amongst all of that I thought it would be cool and then I kind of lost the rotation on my car and actually almost ran into his and I thought I ought to get out of here and let him have his moment. I will have my moment here in a bit so I went on down the other side of the track.”
Whether he can put himself in Denny Hamlin’s shoes and think that it is a bummer to lose:
“Yeah without a doubt. I have not had the exact situation but I have been close. in 2004 I lost it by 8 points, 2005 we came within 30 back of the 20 car of Tony Stewart in it at the time and made a mistake in the race, had a tire go down and tried to stay out on a soft tire, the tire finally exploded and crashed and took myself out of it. So I have been in a very similar situation and it sucks, there is no way around it. It is pro sports, there has got to be a loser and there is a winner, it is just how it is but I have been there before. We have had plenty of banter amongst the teams and jabbing back and forth, but without a doubt there is a level of respect that I have for he and his team and those guys stepped up this year. They put a ton of pressure on us and are a true championship team.”