HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Smooth and steady, five years running, Jimmie Johnson kept his NASCAR reign rolling.
He stretched his record run of championships to five straight by making the fewest mistakes in Sunday’s season finale.
Johnson trailed Denny Hamlin by 15 points entering Homestead-Miami Speedway, but captured another title by running the cleanest race of the three championship contenders. He finished second to race winner Carl Edwards and claimed the championship by 39 points over Hamlin.
Kevin Harvick was third in the race and third in the final standings, 41 points behind Johnson.
"I am just so proud to be in this position, and so thankful to have my great race team," Johnson said.
It was the first come-from-behind championship in the seven years of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format, which debuted in 2004 and was won each year by the driver who took the points lead into the finale.
That wasn’t Johnson this year. Not even close.
Despite six wins this season, the No. 48 Chevrolet wasn’t as commanding as in years past. It left room for the competition to catch up, and even pass Johnson at the time of the year when he traditionally dominates.
It was Hamlin who took control of the Chase, winning two races and outrunning Johnson over the final few weeks. That set up Sunday’s showdown, sending Johnson into a finale in which he needed to race hard for the first time since 2005. In the previous four years, he had the title well in hand by the time he got to Homestead.
The element of having to earn No. 5 may have contributed to one of the heartiest celebrations of Johnson’s career. Usually so calm and workmanlike behind the wheel, he was exuberant as he crossed the finish line, pumping his fists in the car while screaming with joy.
"I think this year we showed what this team is made of," he said. "At times this season we didn’t have the most speed, but we had the most heart."
Hamlin, with a series-best eight wins this season, was the guy to beat the final month of the Chase. But poor fuel mileage last week in Phoenix kept it tight headed into Sunday, and he had a terrible race when he needed only a clean run.
Contact with Greg Biffle very early in the race sent Hamlin into a spin and damaged the front of his car. He dropped to 37th by the restart and had to work all day to finish 14th.
"We had a great year, we won the most races that we ever won, we contended like we’ve never contended before and just circumstances took us out of this one," Hamlin said.
Harvick, meanwhile, took the lead on a round of pit stops with 80 laps to go, but was flagged for speeding as he entered pit road. It dropped him to 29th, and he was still upset with the call after the race.
"I don’t think that penalty will ever settle in my stomach," Harvick said, insisting that "only a handful of people" get to see the pit road speeds. "I won’t ever settle for that."
But he wasn’t devastated by the defeat, pointing to all the gains made this year by Richard Childress Racing. A year after failing to put any cars into the Chase, RCR had three in the field and Harvick, winner of two races, led the points for most of the regular season.
"It’s a 180 for us," Harvick said. "Last year this time we all wanted to put a gun in our mouth."
While Harvick could find the bright spots, Hamlin, sitting next to him at the podium, had a harder time finding much to be happy about. With a vacant look and muffled answers, he vowed to be back stronger next season.
"My job is to work in the offseason to do everything I can to be better and, you know, I know every year that I am in the Cup series, I’m going to be better than I was the previous year," Hamlin said. "We’re going to keep working and go get them next year."
As both drivers discussed their day, Johnson’s championship celebration was shown on the multiple televisions hanging around the room and both drivers watched portions of the presentation.
Who could blame them? It was history.
The fifth title moved Johnson past Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon for most titles among active drivers. He now ranks third on the career list behind seven-time champions and Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
"Finally, finally, after being able to pull this off, he’ll get the respect and the rewards that he deserves," crew chief Chad Knaus said.
The championship was a record 10th for Hendrick Motorsports, which broke a tie with Petty Enterprise for most in NASCAR. Johnson and HMS also joined three other pro teams — the Boston Celtics, New York Yankees and Montreal Canadiens — to win five consecutive titles. The Celtics are the all-time leaders with eight consecutive NBA titles.
"Somebody has got to win it, and I’m glad it was us," team owner Rick Hendrick said, noting that "this race was so up and down. It was like who’s going to screw up the most?"
Not Johnson and Knaus, who overcame a few slow pit stops — their one trouble spot this season — to show why they’ve been so good for so long.