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Hamlin wins Ford 400, Johnson claims sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup title

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Monday, Nov. 18, 2013

In typical steady fashion, Jimmie Johnson won yet another Chase on Sunday – his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship.

Next up is a chase for NASCAR history.

It’s not a conversation Johnson relishes, but it’s one he can’t avoid.

While Denny Hamlin won the Ford 400 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson’s ninth-place finish was more than necessary to secure his title.

He finished 19 points ahead of runner-up Matt Kenseth and 34 ahead of Kevin Harvick, who were the only other drivers who entered the race with a mathematical chance at the championship.

Johnson now stands alone in third for number of championships in NASCAR’s premier series. Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt share the record of seven.

“I feel like this team is capable of a lot of great things. There’s still great years out ahead of us. But all of that is in the future – a seventh, an eighth (title). That’s all ahead of us,” Johnson said.

“I don’t want to focus on that yet. It’s not time. I want to unplug, enjoy the sixth, let it soak in. We’ll get to Daytona for testing soon enough. I guess by then it’s probably appropriate to ask the question.”

Over the course of this past weekend, Hamlin said Johnson may be the greatest driver of all time. Petty said he could see Johnson winning eight to 10 championships.

Even with a two-year absence from the championship picture after winning five straight (2006-2010), no one seems willing to bet against Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team earning a seventh.

At least not now.

“Jimmie and that team are obviously unbelievable. Never seen anything like this in the sport and probably will never see anything like it again,” said Kenseth, who led the most laps in Sunday’s race but ended up second.

“It’s amazing with as tight as the rules are, multi-car teams, information sharing, and all that stuff. It’s amazing they can figure out how to do that year after year.”

Johnson began the season in style, winning his second Daytona 500. He added victories at Martinsville, Va., Pocono (Pa.) and another win in the July race at Daytona before heading into this season’s 10-race Chase as the No. 2 seed behind Kenseth.

He won the Chase’s third race, at Dover, Del., and added a victory at Texas. He entered Sunday’s race with a 28-point lead over Kenseth, needing only to finish 23rd or better to guarantee another title.

“I’m humbled by the nice things that have been said by competitors and owners, my peers in this industry. I think their opinion is very important,” Johnson said.

“Honored to be in the conversation and I know I will have to face it, especially being this close to seven and having a shot to tie those guys.”

Johnson has no bigger advocate than crew chief Chad Knaus, who has worked with him since Day 1 of his Cup series career.

“When you hear guys like Richard Childress and Richard Petty talk about Jimmie in that light, he is an amazing talent, there’s no doubt about it,” Knaus said. “He can do things with a race car that most mortals can’t.

“I’m very blessed to be his crew chief. But I know that the resources that we have at Hendrick Motorsports allows him to be as good as what he is. There’s no doubt about it.

“We’re able to turn around and make things happen quickly. That’s not the way it is everywhere.”

Johnson’s path to title No. 6 on Sunday was not incident-free. He ran up front most of the race even though he didn’t lead a lap.

On a restart on Lap 194 of 267, both Johnson and Kenseth lost considerable ground when Jeff Gordon spun his tires and set cars scattering behind him. Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet picked up some damage but he made his way back into the Top 10 before the finish.

“This is extremely sweet. I feel like those five years (previous title seasons) were a blur, and things happened so fast,” Johnson said. “It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it or appreciate it or didn’t respect what happened.

“It just went by so fast, it seems like. I’m really going to slow things down here and enjoy it. This is so, so sweet.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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