HOMESTEAD, Fla -- He stepped out of his motor coach, slapped high-fives with friends who were enjoying mid-day cocktails, then walked through the bright South Florida sunshine. The start of the final race of the 2013 NASCAR season was an hour away, and Jimmie Johnson was acting like he was about to go on a lazy Sunday afternoon drive, the way he smiled at friends and fans in the infield at Homestead-Miami Speedway, telling everyone he was "feeling good." When Johnson reached his Lowe's Chevy parked on pit road, he hugged family members and then wrapped his arms around Angie Harmon and Jason Sehorn. Johnson handed his close friends number 48 hats, and the three of them laughed as if they were standing in the kitchen at a dinner party. Even though the engines had yet to fire, it felt like the championship celebration had already begun.
Johnson wasn't stressed on Sunday afternoon because he held a 28-point lead in the standings over Matt Kenseth, which is the equivalent of 28 positions on the track. If Johnson finished 23rd or better at Homestead, he would capture the title, even if Kenseth took the checkered flag. "We control our own destiny and that is such a great feeling," Johnson said four days before the season finale as he stood in Victory Lane and looked up into the empty Homestead grandstands. "We've worked hard to put ourselves in this position. Everything we've done all season was for this."
As soon as the green flag dropped on Sunday, Johnson was typical Johnson: robotic in his precision, near-perfect in hitting his marks through the turns, and ultra-careful to keep his fenders clean. Starting seventh, Johnson quickly passed six cars to reach second. Near the halfway mark of the season's final 400 miles, as a golden twilight fell over the 1.5-mile track, Johnson bumped into Kenseth on a congested re-start and fell to 27th. But then he patiently and methodically passed one car after the next. Denny Hamlin won the race and Kenseth came in second, but Johnson won the championship by finishing ninth.
"You're the best out there, buddy," Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, told his driver over the radio after he crossed the finish line. "You're the best out there."
"It was a strong 10 weeks," Johnson said Sunday night. "We got it done."
All during championship weekend one question hung over the track: Is Jimmie Johnson the greatest stock car driver of all time?
At age 38, Johnson has six titles. Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt share the record of seven championships. It's taken as an article of faith in the garage that Johnson will win at least one more championship. Petty himself speculated that Johnson would win 10. Most drivers don't experience a diminishment of their head-eye-foot coordination or their fearlessness until age 42 or 43. So certainly earning 10 titles appears to be within Johnson's grasp.
"I think being out there and racing with him, I can say that I think he's the best that there ever was," says Denny Hamlin. "He's racing against competition that is tougher than this sport's ever seen. The guy's just so good. So you just need him to have some bad luck here and there."
Unlike an NFL quarterback, whose arm strength can be measured by how far he can throw the ball, or a cleanup hitter in baseball, whose effectiveness can be distilled into measurable statistics, Johnson's hallmark skills are not easily identifiable. He was a mid-pack driver in the Nationwide Series — between 1998 and 2001 he only had four top-five finishes in 72 starts — but got his break during a Nationwide race at Michigan International Speedway in '01. During the event he reached the rear-bumper of Jeff Gordon, who was one of Johnson's childhood heroes. Though Johnson was piloting inferior equipment, he stayed glued for several laps to Gordon, who couldn't shake free. Impressed, Gordon eventually asked Johnson to drive a car he was going to co-own with Rick Hendrick. It was the number 48 and the crew chief was a young, relatively unknown workaholic named Chad Knaus.
Johnson has an abundance of car control and a sense of anticipation that is off the charts, but his biggest strength rests between his ears. When he's behind the wheel, he analyzes what's going with his car like a crew chief, like a surgeon diagnosing a patient. He then describes — in rich, painstaking detail — what he's feeling over the radio and offers a prescription for what's ailing his car. This isn't the sexiest skill in racing, not like being able to manhandle a car as it slides sideways through the corners, but it's been the core reason why Johnson has won six of the last eight championships and will one day soon be known as the greatest of all time. "Jimmie can feel the car and be one with the car," said Knaus.
When asked to describe what makes Johnson so good, Hendrick said, "I look at how he breaks down the corners and how he studies what's going on in the car. He never gets excited. He's like a computer feeding stuff back to Chad and making adjustments. He thinks about the race. Before we get to the racetrack, he's planning on a strategy. The way he eats, the way he runs. You just don't often see that dedication that's matched with talent that often. I think he's one of the greatest that I've ever seen because of all of those things. There are a lot of guys out there with tremendous talent and have tremendous car skill. But to be smart, to be dedicated, to tune your body like you do the car, to prepare for races in your head, with your crew chief, he goes the extra mile to be ready."
On Thursday Matt Kenseth was pondering what Johnson's signature talent was. For about 30 seconds, he silently looked to the ground, searching for an answer. Then he raised his eyes and said, "He has no weaknesses and no bad habits. That about sums it up."
Kenseth won a series-high seven races in 2013, and he described it as "the best year of my career." Kenseth now joins a growing club that consists of himself, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin — drivers who all enjoyed career seasons and still couldn't beat Johnson in the Chase. Unlike every other driver in the sport, Johnson doesn't have a weak track in the 10-race playoff, and the schedule has certainly been a crucial factor in Johnson's title binge.
"I hope I can accomplish more," Johnson said. "There are still great years ahead of us."
Late on Sunday night — long after the champagne had been sprayed on the stage — Johnson climbed into a car in the infield and disappeared into the darkness. A private party on South Beach awaited. There he and his friends would toast an undeniable fact: The Jimmie Johnson Era continues in NASCAR.