Commentary

Johnson worked hard for fourth title

Updated: November 25, 2009, 9:56 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Jimmie Johnson, Mr. Vanilla himself, lost his temper Sunday. And that was just for starters.

He got rattled, his car got loose, he battled three-wide and almost lost it, he gave up spots on pit road and he was back in the field during part of the Ford 400. Johnson even got upset with his teammate and mentor Jeff Gordon.

This was one tortuous way to make history as the first man to win four consecutive Sprint Cup championships.

Johnson, as smooth and as mellow as they come, on and off the track, had to sweat and claw to get there. He had to work for it.

"It was hair-raising at times," Johnson said. "I got trapped in a couple of situations I didn't find enjoyable. I was revved up tonight."

Johnson is so good so often that you don't expect to see him struggle and get frustrated. The pressure was obvious all day. The stress level was high.

But in the end, with 12 laps left, there he was, running in the top five as usual and wondering if he should go for the victory in a radio conversation with crew chief Chad Knaus.

Johnson: "Can we catch the leader?"
Knaus: "No. You cannot."
Johnson: "Is that a dare?"
Knaus: "No. That is not a dare. That is a fact."

Knaus didn't know it was a fact. The fact is he didn't want him to try. Too much was on the line. Johnson and the No. 48 Chevrolet team were moments away from a date with destiny.

When the checkered flag flew, Johnson was in a league of his own.

"It will take a while to set in," Johnson said after the race. "The truth is, with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt and to respect this sport the way I do, to do something that has never been done is so awesome. I don't even know where to start. This is unbelievable."

It wasn't an easy night for Johnson, but it was tougher for the one man with a chance to catch him. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin finished a disappointing 12th in his quest to earn his first championship at age 50, falling 141 points shy of Johnson.

"There's no frustration," said Martin, who was the first driver to congratulate Johnson after the race. "I didn't leave anything out there. We accomplished more than any team in the garage except the 48. That should be enough to make you proud. I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world."

The one disappointment Sunday was that Rick Hendrick wasn't there to celebrate the moment. He returned to Charlotte on Sunday when he learned his niece, Alesha Gainey, was having an emergency liver transplant.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
AP Photo/Terry RennaJimmie Johnson had to work for the champion's champagne on Sunday, just like he had to do the three previous Sprint Cup Sundays at Homestead.

Gainey, 29, is the daughter of Rick's brother, John Hendrick, who was killed in the 2004 team plane crash near Martinsville Speedway.

"I wish Mr. Hendrick was here with us, but we understand," Johnson said.

Hendrick Motorsports also became the first organization in NASCAR history to claim the top three spots in the season standings. Jeff Gordon finished third in the standings and sixth Sunday.

"As a competitor, that Johnson guy ticks me off," Gordon said with a smile. "But as a teammate, they're amazing. I never thought I would see in my lifetime someone win four in a row. It's extraordinary."

Extraordinary people overcome difficult moments and unusual things. Johnson had those situations Sunday. No one gave him a free ride. Drivers raced hard around him, as they should. But it got to Johnson at times.

He was furious with Clint Bowyer early in the race, calling Bowyer "disrespectful" for driving aggressively near the No. 48. And Johnson felt Gordon should have given him a wider berth late in the race.

Odd behavior for Johnson, things he rarely complains about in a normal racing situation. But this wasn't a normal situation. This was the race of his life. His intensity was boiling over.

But he kept his composure when it mattered the most. A questionable decision to pit dropped him to 23rd, and he lost spots on other stops because his crew was playing it safe and not taking chances.

Johnson patiently worked his way back near the front every time. When 400 miles were complete, he had his top spot in NASCAR's record book.

"History, boys," he yelled on his radio. "No one ever. Ever! Thank you."

"It was all you," Knaus told him. "I love you, brother."

Knaus also is the only crew chief to win four consecutive championships.

"That's just absolutely incredible," he said. "It shows how impressive this team is. Jimmie is an incredible talent, the most underrated driver in this garage. He can do things in a race car that I've never seen done before."

Jeff Burton If you would have told me a few years ago someone would win four in a row, I would have said you were crazy. I never would have thought in 100 years anyone could do that.

-- Jeff Burton on Jimmie Johnson

Jeff Burton, who finished second to race winner Denny Hamlin on Sunday, also is amazed at what he sees in Johnson.

"If you would have told me a few years ago someone would win four in a row, I would have said you were crazy," Burton said. "I never would have thought in 100 years anyone could do that.

"The interesting thing is it looks like it comes easy to him. I suspect nothing comes that easy to anybody. You have to work exceptionally hard. I'm sure Jimmie does that."

Johnson worked his tail off Sunday, doing all he could to handle the pressure of the moment, avoid disaster and become a racing legend.

"I had no clue this stuff would happen to me," Johnson said. "I wasn't sure we would be in this position, but I felt we had a shot.

"I'm just blown away by the things we've been able to accomplish. But it didn't just happen. We've worked really hard. We dedicated our lives to this."

Johnson has earned his place among the greatest drivers in racing history.

The dedication paid off.

And it didn't come easy, not Sunday evening at Homestead and not four seasons ago when this historic run began.

Johnson worked for it. No one gave him a thing. And now he's the best of the best.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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