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Johnson crowned champ for fifth consecutive year

Hamlin says Johnson best NASCAR driver ever
Saturday, December 4, 2010


Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and team owner Rick Hendrick celebrate their fifth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship before the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR
Amidst all the glitz and glamour and outrageous fanfare that was the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony at Wynn Las Vegas on Friday, Jeff Gordon made everyone in attendance and watching on television pause for a moment of reflection.

Gordon did so with a comment about the likely lasting historical significance of what has been accomplished by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

On the night when Johnson was awarded a check for $5.778 million and yet another trophy for his already overcrowded mantle -- after comedian Frank Caliendo nearly brought the house down with his over-the-top impression of NASCAR president Mike Helton, and NASCAR vice president Robin Pemberton's "have at it, boys," mantra was dubbed into an entertaining hip-hop piece -- Gordon said he never again expects to see a streak like this one.

"This is something that I think everyone will agree that will never, ever be done again," Gordon said of Johnson's five consecutive titles.

Caught afterward in the interview room, away from the bright lights of the main stage that stretched out in front of a crowd of more than 1,500, Gordon hinted further that he thinks Johnson's streak is about to end and never again will be duplicated.

Johnson's Hendrick teammate the over the hill Jeff Gordon said Johnson's streak may be over.  So did their boss Rick Hendrick.
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR
"There are so many factors that weigh into winning a championship. There are just so many things that can go wrong," said Gordon, a four-time Cup champion himself. "And so to win two or three or even four, I thought, was amazing. But to go win five? I don't think anybody else will ever do that. I really don't

"You've got to understand. I think there are times where you guys [in the media] think they make it look easy, like they're just in full control and they're just so dominating. Trust me, I'm in those [Hendrick Motorsports] meetings with those guys. They're fighting; they're frustrated; they're going through all the things everyone else is to put themselves in position to win the championship. And even after going through all that, there is just so much that can still go wrong."

Asked specifically if that meant he thinks Johnson's streak will end in 2011, Gordon hedged a little and admitted that team owner Rick Hendrick certainly will do whatever he can to help Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet team keep it going. But Gordon, even though he's technically Johnson's car owner, admitted he does not think it will happen.

"Certainly the odds are against them. I think they did show some vulnerability this year. ... There are a lot of guys out there on other teams, as well as within our organization, who are thinking about what we can do to stop them," Gordon said.

Hendrick later endorsed Gordon's prediction that no one will ever again win five titles in a row while leaving it wide open for the possibility that Johnson will make it six next season.

"People say records are meant to be broken," Hendrick said before the gathered throng. "But Jimmie, I don't think well ever see five in a row again."

Jimmie Johnson poses with wife Chandra and baby Genevieve
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR
Denny Hamlin, who finished second in points to Johnson after becoming the first driver in the era of the Chase to the Sprint Cup to lose a points lead in the final race, put his season and Johnson's in perspective in one simple sentence.

"Obviously it was a privilege to get to race the best of all time in my opinion -- and to have a shot to beat him," Hamlin said.

The best of all time? Yes, Hamlin repeated when asked to clarify, the best of all time. Hamlin talked about breaking into Sprint Cup as a full-time driver for the first time in 2006, the same year Johnson's Drive for Five championship run began.

"Unlucky me. I came in at the right time or the wrong time, however you want to think about it," Hamlin said. "I probably came into the sport when the last wave of really heavy-duty new drivers came in, back in 2006 when rides were available. So I got lucky in that aspect, but I got unlucky in the aspect that I come in here and I'm racing a guy who is the equal of Richard Petty."

When and if he is beaten, Johnson will in many ways have only himself and his team to blame -- according to Hamlin. He credited watching them with helping his own No. 11 Toyota team improve.

"I think that they've really pushed every other team to be better. They've pushed our team for sure," Hamlin said. "There have been a lot of different teams to step over these last few years and challenge them -- legitimately challenge them. But it seems like they always just have those things that happen when they need to happen to win championships."

Hamlin added that what makes Johnson's five titles in a row so incredible is that he has done it against what Hamlin called the best competition in the sport's 62-year history.

"To be able to accomplish that against this competition level, that's what makes what he's doing to amazing. He's doing it against the highest competition level ever," Hamlin said.

Told later of Hamlin's comments, which actually were made the day before Friday's banquet, Gordon did want to clarify one thing. He insisted that luck has had nothing to do with Johnson's streak.

"I'm not one that believes in luck. I believe in how hard you work and what effort you put in, how focused you are, and what kind of race team you have is what makes the luck," Gordon said. "Anybody can be beat. So it's not like the 48's unbeatable; they're just really darn good. And it's going to take a lot to beat 'em."

As Gordon debated the point in the interview area, the banquet was wrapping up in a ballroom no more than a football field away. Johnson had yet to even give the formal acceptance speech to put the final period on his latest championship.

During his own brief speech after finishing sixth in points, driver Greg Biffle added perspective when he looked over to the head table where Johnson sat with crew chief Chad Knaus, team owner Hendrick and other members of the No. 48 brain trust.

"I'd like to congratulate you on the birth of your first child," Biffle told Johnson, who became a father during the recently concluded season. "You even beat me on that. You must be fast in everything."

Biffle was merely part of a steady stream of fellow competitors who were, by turns, congratulatory and challenging toward the five-time champ. They needled him. They joked about how long he has been champion.

Caliendo did some fine impressions throughout, sparing no potential target in the audience. He complimented Hamlin for being a good sport after zinging the driver by pretending to be David Lettermen, armed with a Top 10 list of excuses for why Hamlin failed to win the championship.

And although his fellow drivers talked about how Johnson might be stopped in the future, they mostly came to pay homage and celebrate Johnson's latest championship run together.

Johnson took home not only the biggest trophy and the biggest check -- but a total of $13,393,186 in winnings for the 2010 season. On the night that put the period on his latest title run, he wore a smile that seemed to stretch the entire length of the Las Vegas strip. He thanked his family, singling out his wife Chandra, and talked of the joys of becoming father to daughter Genevieve, who was born last July in the middle of this latest season.

Somehow, Johnson seemed to be both humbled and possessed with the unmistakable swagger of a deserving, great champion. He appeared to be genuinely awed by his continuing lofty station in life, yet signaling at the same time to his foes to bring it on, that he will be ready to take whatever they might be able to dish out in 2011 and even beyond.

"I don't take any of these championships lightly. I cherish every one of them," Johnson said. "I am so proud to be a race-car driver and a driver in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series. I am just extremely, extremely proud to be the champion. ... As shocked as you are, I'm equally as shocked to find myself in this position."

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