HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson began the 2013 NASCAR season celebrating a victory at the Daytona 500, accidentally tearing up his car during a celebratory burnout.
He finished the season in celebratory mode again at Homestead on Sunday, completing the perfect bookends to a 36-race grind by winning his sixth NASCAR Cup title.
“Yes, yes, yes!” Johnson screamed over the radio after the checkered flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Denny Hamlin’s first victory of the 2013 season was obliterated by Johnson’s amazing “Six Pack” — a title that brings him to within one championship of tying Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. for most Cup titles in the sport’s history.
“There is nothing like this,” Johnson said in Victory Lane, choking back tears as he held one of his daughters, Genevieve, while looking at his wife, Chandra. Johnson flung a six-pack of Gatorade in the air, as members of his crew put on oversized hats shaped like championship rings.
Later on, he walked into the media center with a slice of pizza, which he kindly gave to owner Rick Hendrick.
Such are the perks of a championship season.
Johnson’s “Six Pack” was no surprise. He led Matt Kenseth by 28 points going into the season finale, and all Johnson had to do Sunday was avoid major trouble and coast into the early evening to secure his title.
There was a slight moment of hesitation — Johnson made contact with Kenseth on Lap 194, causing damage to the left-front fender, but it wasn’t enough to derail Johnson, who delivered the 11th Cup title to Hendrick Motorsports.
Johnson finished ninth, ending the day 19 points ahead of Kenseth, who finished second to Hamlin.
What did you expect? Johnson is no drama king when it comes to securing championships.
Johnson has won 24 of 98 races since the inception of the 10-race Chase playoff format in 2004. The winning percentage of 24.49% is almost double his victory rate during the regular season (12.54%, 42 victories in 335 starts).
He called it one of the least stressful weeks of the season. No pressure. Just pride and purpose.
Call it uncomplicated brilliance.
“He can do things with a race car that most mortals can’t,” said crew chief Chad Knaus.
Johnson’s victory overshadowed Hamlin’s victory in an otherwise tumultuous season. Hamlin dealt with the lingering sting of a compression fracture in his lower back after a last-lap crash in March in Fontana.
He missed four races, and has spent a good portion of the season with persistent back pain and taking painkiller injections in his spine.
“It’s a horrible year,” Hamlin said. “I was going to be counting down the laps ... as bad as the year is, we can take a little solace in this finish.”
But the night belonged to Johnson. He owned it, much as he owns his contemporaries on the track. Petty has already warned the NASCAR nation that Johnson could win as many as 10 titles. He will get no argument from folks like Hamlin.
“We’re racing during the Jimmie Johnson era,” Hamlin said. “We’re just unlucky in that sense. I think being out there and racing with him, I can say that I think he’s the best that there ever was. He’s racing against competition that is tougher than this sport’s ever seen.”
Not so fast, Johnson says. Meticulous as always, Johnson prefers to wait until everybody has the proper context.
“I don’t want to focus on that,” he said. “Let’s unplug and focus on the sixth. I’m humbled by the nice things that have been said by my competitors and owners ... but I don’t think my opinion matters. Honored to be in the conversation and I know I am going to have to face it.”
There was no time for that Sunday night. It was on to South Beach for an after-hours party.
Six-packs all around. And probably something stronger than Gatorade.