Last Sunday Jimmie Johnson became the first driver in the history of NASCAR to win 4 straight Cup championships, beating Cale Yarborough?s record of 3 straight set from 1976 to 1978. Regardless of whether you think that Chad Knaus and the 48 team cheated to get there, that Jimmie?s just an average driver benefitting from being spoon fed a top tier ride for his entire career or you?re just jealous that it?s not your favourite driver who?s done it, it?s still pretty amazing.
But the other drivers he had to beat and the ways that he won it differed each time, so here?s my analysis of each of Jimmie?s championships:
2006: This may have been Jimmie?s hardest championship to win despite this being his best overall season to date. After Chad Knaus was suspended for 4 races for rules violations during Daytona Speedweeks, Derian Grubb subbed in for Knaus and led Jimmie to 2 wins in the first 4 races of the year, including the Daytona 500. A win at Talledega made it 3 of the first 9 and after beating Matt Kenseth for his 4th win of the year at Indianapolis Jimmie had a 107 point lead over Kenseth with just 5 races to go before the Chase. But the 48 team fell into what?d become a predictable summer lull as they only had one top ten in those 5 races while Kenseth rattled off back-to-back wins at Michigan and Bristol and took the point lead from Johnson heading into the Chase.
The momentum swing continued as Johnson failed to finish better than 13th in the first 4 Chase races including a 39th place finish at Loudon and a 24th at Talledega after a sure win was taken from him by Brian Vickers? infamous last-lap wreck-and-win; he was 8th in the standings, 156 points behind points leader Jeff Burton and 150 behind 2nd place Matt Kenseth.
But Charlotte was the start of what would turn out to be an amazing run for Johnson, not just that year but the three after, as Johnson finished 2nd to Kahne for the 2nd time at Lowes that year and was up to 7th in the standings, still 146 points back. A week later Johnson won in dominating fashion for his 2nd career win at Martinsville while Kenseth finished 11th and Jeff Burton finished 42nd with an engine failure; Johnson shot up to 3rd in the standings, only 41 points behind new points leader Kenseth. Tony Stewart, who?d missed the Chase, won the next two races at Atlanta and Texas but Johnson was the highest finishing Chase in both races with two more runner-up finishes, and after Johnson made it 5 straight top 2 finishes with a very close 2nd to Harvick at Phoenix he was leading the points by 63 over Kenseth.
This would turn out to be the most recent season that more than two drivers entered Homestead with a mathematical shot at the championship; Kenseth, rookie Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were all within 115 points of Johnson. In the Ford 400 Hamlin finished 3rd, Harvick 5th and Kenseth 6th but a 9th place finish by Johnson was enough to secure his first career Cup series championship. Kenseth would be the runner up, losing by 56 points.
2007: This would be Johnson?s real coming out party as Hendrick Motorsports took full advantage of the inception of the COT for half the season to dominate the year with 18 wins in 36 races. Jimmie and Jeff Gordon did most of the dominating by winning 8 of the first 14 races of the year, 4 each. Jeff dominated the regular season after starting the year with 20 top ten?s in the first 22 races and ended the regular season with a 312 point lead while Johnson was 4th, 410 points back. But NASCAR had changed how the Chase drivers are seeded to start the Chase so now it was based on bonus points, 10 per win. Although the usual summer slump had put Johnson down in the standings compared to Gordon, he ended the regular season with back-to-back wins at California and Richmond to give him 6 wins to Jeff?s 4 and a 20 point lead heading into the Chase.
Sophomore driver and surprise Chase driver gave everyone an even bigger surprise by dominating the first Chase race at Loudon from pole for his first career Cup win. Jeff finished 2nd, Tony Stewart finished 3rd, Kyle Busch finished 4th and Johnson finished 6th; After the 5 finished 12th, 11th, 9th, 5th and 14th respectively they were all covered by just 18 points with Dover winner Carl Edwards 28 points behind the point leader. Jeff Gordon and Johnson would assert themselves over the next two races as Johnson finished 3rd at Kansas with Gordon 5th while Jeff passed Johnson on the last lap to win at Talledega. Jeff Gordon appeared to take a decisive edge over Johnson at Lowes after Johnson had a spin and finished 14th while Jeff Gordon pulled off an amazing win with a car that barely made it to the finish and a lucky break from Ryan Newman who wrecked himself after taking the lead. Gordon was 68 points ahead of Johnson and it looked like the master would defeat the student and get his 5th Cup championship.
Then Jimmie won 4 races in a row. He completed the season sweep at Martinsville while Jeff Gordon led the most laps and finished 3rd; he showed up at Atlanta when it mattered to lead the final 8 laps, the only laps he?d lead all race, to get two in a row while Gordon finished 7th; he did the exact same thing at Texas after passing Kenseth with just 3 laps to go for three in a row while Gordon finished 7th again; and a win at Phoenix combined with Gordon?s 10th place finish gave him an 156 point swing over the 4 races despite Gordon finishing top 10 in all of them and an 86 point lead heading into Homestead. Gordon would finish 4th but Johnson would win the pole and finish 7th to secure his 2nd straight championship, the first driver to do so since Gordon in 1997 and 1998. Johnson would end the year with a season and career high 10 wins. Jeff Gordon finished runner-up.
2008: This championship can be seen as a slow rise to glory as Johnson suffered the worst start of a season in his career. He had just 1 wins and 4 top ten?s in the first 12 races, ending with an engine failure at Lowes that left him 9th in the standings. Meanwhile Kyle Busch was having a giant breakout year in his first season with JGR, leading the standings with 3 wins while Carl Edwards won 3 of the first 7 races of the year. Their momentum continued during the regular season as Kyle won 8 of the first 22 races of the year and Edwards had 6 in 24 and were 1-2 in points in both the regular season standings and the start of the Chase with their bonus points for wins. But after his bad start to the year, Johnson slowly got things back on track as 8 top ten?s in the next 10 races including a runner up at Chicagoland and his 2nd career win at Indianapolis locked his spot in the Chase and put him up to 3rd in the standings; it was the reverse of the usual for Johnson since he usually starts the season hot but has a mid-season lull. After mediocre finishes at Michigan and Bristol, Johnson ended the regular season the same way he did in 2007; he won at Cali and Richmond to lock up the 3rd seed heading into the Chase.
Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards were still seen as the favourites to win the championship, but some major issues for the 18 team in the early part of the Chase quickly sunk him out of contention. But Greg Biffle rose up as a dark horse contender after winning the first two races of the Chase. Biffle, Edwards and Johnson would all finish in the top 3 in the first 3 races of the Chase to separate themselves from the rest of the field, but Talledega is where the championship all but ended for the two Roushkateers. All 3 played it safe during the race and waited until the end to come to the front to contend for a good finish, but it all went wrong for Carl and Greg as Carl spun his teammate while shoving him through the turn and caused the Big One. Biffle would finish 24th, Edwards 29th, and Johnson would avoid all the carnage and come home with a 9th place finish and a healthy 72 point lead over Edwards. Carl would suffer mechanical issues at Lowes and finish 33rd while Johnson finished 6th, and after another Martinsville win for Johson and a 3rd by Carl the point lead would be 149 points over 2nd place Biffle and 198 points over 4th place Carl. Edwards tried his best to catch Johnson by winning 3 of the last 4 races, including a dominating win at Atlanta and fuel mileage gambles at Texas and Homestead. But a stellar runner-up at Atlanta after carving through the field with fresh tires in the closing laps, an average 15th place finish at Texas and a big rebound win at Phoenix, Johnson practically cruised to an easy 3rd straight championship, the first driver to do so since Carl Yarborough from 1976 to 1978. Carl Edwards would finish runner-up despite leading the series in wins, top fives and top tens that year.
2009: By this time the 48 team had the season down to a science, and everything played out predictably. Two things that no one expected was for Tony Stewart to come out of the gate so strong with his new SHR team, or that Mark Martin would become a force to be reckoned with in his first season with HMS; Stewart had a dominant point lead for most of the regular season and won 3 races while Mark Martin would fend off inconsistency and a bad start to the year to lead the regular season with 4 wins and make the Chase. Also, Jeff Gordon enjoyed a rebound year after going winless in 2007, winning at Texas and leading the standings early in the year before settling into 2nd for the long haul. But Jimmie was just as good as he was at the end of 2008, even if the results didn?t show it. Jimmie led significant laps in a number of races during the regular season but anything from bad luck on restarts to bad pit stops to failed fuel mileage gambles cost him at least half a dozen wins. Jimmie would end the regular season 3rd in points but having led the most laps and with 3 wins of his own.
Mark would start the Chase strong with a win at Loudon, and despite Johnson completing the season sweep at Dover and Stewart winning at Kansas Mark had an 18 point lead over Johnson after 3 races. But the championship battle was over pretty quickly after that as Johnson would dominate California and win at Charlotte to make it back-to-back wins, and after a 2nd at Martinsville Jimmie had an 118 point lead over Mark Martin. The next two races had Jimmie enjoy fantastic luck and then terrible luck; Johnson would lag behind the pack for most of the race at Talledega and benefit from two major wrecks and fuel mileage to finish 6th while his title contenders finished well back so he had a 184 point lead, until a lap 3 wreck at Texas caused him to finish 38th and dropped his point lead to 84 points after Martin finished 4th. He ended up losing 34 points over those two races, but Johnson would once again rebound after a bad race with a win at Phoenix to stretch his point lead to 108 points over Mark heading into Homestead. His 2nd Homestead pole in the last 3 races combined with a 5th allowed him to easily clinch his 4th consecutive Cup series championship, breaking Cale Yarborough?s record of 3 straight set from 1976 to 1978. Mark Martin would finish runner-up for a record-tying 5th time, and with Jeff Gordon finishing 3rd it gave HMS a 1-2-3 finish, the first team to accomplish the feat.
So in summary it?s 4 straight championships, each easier and more dominant than the last! So logic presumes that next year will be.... er, uh oh.
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