HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Shortly after Tony Stewart clinched his third NASCAR Sprint Cup title, a driver came to congratulate him. It was Jimmie Johnson, whose streak of five straight Sprint Cup championships came to an end this season.
"I think the last five years, the entire NASCAR nation thought they might never have a shot at another championship again," said Stewart, who joined Johnson as the only driver to win the Cup title more than once in the Chase era.
Although Johnson did not achieve a historic sixth title, expect him to be a serious contender for it in 2012. He has many things on his side, including his race team at Hendrick Motorsports, one of the best crew chiefs in the sport in Chad Knaus and the experience and savvy to excel in the Chase.
At the midway point of the Chase, Johnson appeared to be charging to the championship after winning at Kansas. He was just three points out of the lead and heading to one of his best tracks -- the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway. But his Chase came to a crashing halt when he was racing Ryan Newman and his Chevrolet lost control and slammed hard into the outside wall in the second turn late in the race. The crash dropped him to eighth in points, 35 out of the lead, with five races to go.
Johnson never recovered and finished the Chase sixth in points, 99 behind the Stewart.
Don't expect to see Johnson sulk after his subpar season. If anything, he plans on using it as a tool to get back to the top in 2012.
"That [the end of my streak] motivates me a ton," Johnson said. "Motivation comes easy for all of us. I know that question is asked a lot, but we just want to race and if we are going to spend all the time to do all this, we want to be racing for the championship."
Remember that Johnson wasn't always the five-time defending champion. The title was within his grasp during his first two years in the Chase (2004, '05), before mistakes and a crash kept him from capturing it. Johnson and his team used those mistakes as a learning tool. Expect the same to happen in 2012.
"I certainly learned from my mistakes," Johnson said. "You learn and get stronger. The other part that was weighing heavily on my mind and shoulders in 2006 was I had been close a couple of times in these championships [and] opportunities don't come around every year. ... I had a lot of anxiety surrounding the finale in 2006 and a lot of pressure on my shoulders because I did not want to miss that opportunity.
"It was a very stressful year for me. They continue to get easier, and I think last year was the most relaxed I have been, the most enjoyable experience I had, but '06, it was damn near life or death to win the championship for me."
Instead of being a focal point for the 2011 championship finale, Johnson was merely a footnote. Instead of attending the championship contenders' press conference last Thursday at South Beach, he was out shopping with his wife, Channi.
"Just thinking about it, like wow, it really is over," Johnson said. "I'm disappointed that it is over but very proud of what this team has done. What we have done over the last, really, 10 years, the last five obviously stand out, but what we have done as a group over the 10-year run so far has been truly amazing."
And he's not the only one who thinks so.
"It's been an honor to watch him do what he's done," Stewart said of Johnson. "It's probably something that will never happen again in the history of our sport. It's very difficult to win a championship, let alone back-to-back and five in a row like that. The competition keeps getting tougher and tougher every year. With this Chase format, you can't make mistakes and have it pay off. To do what they've done has been extremely impressive."
Jeff Gordon, Johnson's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, who won four Cup titles in his career but none since the advent of the Chase in 2004, agrees that Johnson's feat is unlikely to be replicated.
"I don't think it's something we'll ever see again," Gordon said. "You look at the history in this sport and you look at other sports and it's just something that is so rare.
"They made it look easy, but I know it wasn't from being inside and knowing Jimmie [Johnson] and Chad [Knaus, crew chief]. Those guys work so hard at it and it just, to me, goes back to showing that when you have a team that has chemistry and that is on the same page and wants the same things and is willing to put in the effort and has the right people all working together to achieve the same goal that anything is possible. ... I think this is going to be the year that they learn a lot from what it is like to not win it and show just how good they are to come together and go back out there and get it again."
That team chemistry was tested this season as Johnson and Knaus were sometimes not in agreement during the races. Johnson even questioned some of Knaus' calls during the Chase.
But like any great combination, these two will work together to improve. That is why I believe Johnson will win at least two more Cup titles in his career, which would tie him with the late Dale Earnhardt and the legendary Richard Petty for most Cup championships in a career at seven.
But does Johnson have three more titles left in him? That would give him the all-time record at eight.
"I don't know but I want to believe in it," Johnson said. "How long I can race into my career, I think there is a chance; I don't know how realistic that chance is, but I want to believe in it and think that I can."
Until then, however, Stewart is the champion. In an ironic twist, Stewart was the last driver to win the Sprint Cup title before Johnson's reign, making him a fitting bookend to Johnson's run.
"You wouldn't think you'd take a lot of pride in being the bookends of a dynasty," Stewart said, "but it is a pretty cool position to be in, to know that there are two guys in the last six years that have won championships, and [I'm] one of them."