Last Thursday morning Jimmie Johnson, alone in a Chevy Tahoe, rolled into the infield at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In just three days he would be taking a slightly racier Chevy, his iconic number 48 Lowe's car, onto the track in an attempt to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win six Cup championships in eight seasons. Any doubt that Johnson was ready to ice his latest title was quickly put to rest. He parked the truck next to his multimillion-dollar motor coach, jogged up five steps, then reached into a freezer to show a visitor a treat he planned to sample once the checkered flag waved on the 2013 season: a bottle of Ketel One vodka. "It's ready to go," Johnson said, smiling mischievously. "Sunday night, baby."
This is an article from the Nov. 25, 2013 issue
Heading into Homestead, Johnson held a 28-point lead over Matt Kenseth, the equivalent of 28 positions on the track, and needed only to avoid mechanical problems and accidents to clinch the title. He did just that. Kenseth took second behind Denny Hamlin, but Johnson came in ninth to take the Cup. Mr. Six-Time celebrated well into Monday morning at a private party in South Beach—the Ketel One didn't survive long—and one question hung over every toast: Is Jimmie Johnson the greatest stock car driver of all time?
Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt each won a record seven titles. Petty himself has speculated that the 38-year-old Johnson could win 10. Said Hamlin, "Being out there and racing with him, I can say that I think Jimmie is the best that there ever was."
After struggling in the last four races of the regular season—his average finish was 36.0—Johnson took off in the Chase, which has been the M.O. of his 12-year Cup career. His 5.1 average finish in the 10-race playoffs this year was third best in history, and he led a combined 846 laps, third most ever by a Chase driver. Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, use the races in the final two months of the regular season as de facto test sessions for the playoffs—trying new setups—and this is why the 48 team usually peaks in the playoffs. "Jimmie and Chad just know how to come on when it matters most," says Kenseth. "There's them, and then there's everyone else."
Kenseth, who labeled this season "the best of my career," joins the club of drivers who have had career years only to finish behind Johnson in the standings. In 2008, Carl Edwards won more races than Johnson (nine to seven) but lost the championship to him. In '10, Denny Hamlin had a series-best eight victories and held the points lead going into Homestead—and still couldn't beat Johnson. Kevin Harvick had eight top 10s in this year's Chase, and yet finished a distant third. "Jimmie is definitely hogging the titles, and the rest of us need to step it up," says Harvick.
Yet as long as Johnson and Knaus stay together—and they are the Jordan and Jackson, Brady and Belichick, Jeter and Torre of NASCAR—it doesn't appear that the Jimmie Johnson Era will end anytime soon.