As Jimmie Johnson walked away from his number 48 Chevrolet after NASCAR's season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 21, he wore the glum look of a man whose spirit had just been snapped in two. Moments earlier he had charged to a second-place finish, yet it had not been enough to overtake Kurt Busch (who placed fifth in the race) in the Nextel Cup points standings. Johnson lost the championship to Busch by eight points--the closest finish in NASCAR's 55year history. But don't be swayed by the outcome of the 10-race Chase for the Championship: Over the course of the 36race season Johnson was NASCAR's most dominant force, and that's why he's SI's Driver of the Year.
"It has been a great ride," says Johnson, who began the Chase second in the standings and wound up 2004 with a NASCAR-high eight wins and 20 top five finishes. "But it's hard to think too much about it because of what happened with the airplane."
On Oct. 24 a 10-seat turboprop owned by Hendrick Motorsports--the team for which Johnson and Jeff Gordon drive--crashed into fog-shrouded Bull Mountain in southeastern Virginia. All 10 passengers, who were on their way to the Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway, were killed. The crash was particularly devastating for team owner Rick Hendrick, who lost his only son, Ricky; his brother, John; two of his nieces, Jennifer and Kimberly Hendrick; and his best friend, Randy Dorton, who was the team's chief engine builder. When Johnson was told about the accident moments after winning the Subway 500, he appeared disoriented and overwhelmed by the shock.
Yet in the guttiest performance of the season, the 29-year-old Johnson came back the following week to win the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 in Atlanta. While still strapped into his Lowe's Chevy in Victory Lane, he was handed a cellphone. On the other end was Rick Hendrick. "Hey, boss," Johnson said with teary eyes.
"Put your hat on backward for Little Ricky," Hendrick said, referring to the way his son wore his cap. Johnson turned his hat around, then broke down.
Despite his grief Johnson took the checkered flag two weeks later at Darlington, becoming the first driver since Gordon, in 1998--99, to have four wins in five starts. Had Johnson not suffered freakish back-to-back 37th- and 32nd-place finishes early in the Chase (an overheated engine and an accident, respectively), he almost certainly would have roared to the title. "Jimmie had an amazing year," says Busch. "It's incredible that he was able to keep his focus even after the tragedy. He's just a great race car driver."
That much is certain. And given that Johnson, who just finished his third full season on the Cup circuit, has yet to reach his full potential, he figures to be a contender for the next decade. "Jimmie is going to win a championship one of these days," says Gordon. "I don't know when, but I'd bet it will be sooner rather than later."
So would we.
Showdown of the Year
Microphone in hand, Jeff Gordon stood on a deck outside the Marriott in South Beach on Nov. 19 and threw down the gauntlet. "I can't wait to get to Paris," Gordon told the crowd of 100 fans, "and show Michael Schumacher what NASCAR racing is all about!"
On Saturday, Gordon and Jimmie Johnson will represent the U.S. in the 17th annual Race of Champions--Nations Cup in Paris. Seven other countries--including Germany, whose two-man team will feature √ºberdriver Schumacher (right), the seven-time Formula One champion--will be represented at Stade de France, an indoor soccer arena that seats 80,000. The 16 drivers will face off in a series of match races in identically equipped and prepared four-wheel-drive rally cars on a specially constructed one-kilometer asphalt figure-eight track. The winner will be crowned Champion of Champions, after which the two-driver squads will vie for the title of World's Fastest Nation.
If the racing goes to form, fans will be treated to a dream matchup: Gordon, NASCAR's four-time champ, versus Schumacher, the most successful driver in F/1 history. "Win or lose," says Gordon, "it's probably the only opportunity I'll ever have to race against Schumacher." --L.A.