What a ride: How JJ won the Cup
The weight of the world appeared lifted from Jimmie Johnson's shoulders Sunday night as he raised the No. 48 championship flag up the pole near the start-finish line at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
For a record fourth straight time.
"You know, the pressure of winning the fourth didn't really hit me until I hit the fence at Texas, and then it was like, 'Man, you can't relax. You can't hope or think that things are going to be smooth. You've got to go out and earn this thing."
Johnson did. He led the most laps and won at Phoenix the week after a near-disastrous Texas race and finished fifth at Homestead-Miami to become the first four-peat driver in Sprint Cup history.
And then he relaxed.
"I feel so light all of a sudden," Johnson said. "I agree with what you saw, but I think I have done a very good job this year of understanding the Chase, understanding the pressure, understanding what I'm capable of, what the team is capable of, what to focus on.
"And now that I've got a comfortable understanding, and so does the team, and can operate in this environment -- we can continue it the next couple years."
Slow down, Jimmie. Sure, most agree there's no reason the Hendrick Motorsports driver can't win five, six, maybe seven in a row.
But before we jump to 2010 and beyond, let's look back at the 2009 Chase and the highs and lows that put him in such rarified air.
Highs: "Pinch me. I am sure I'm sleeping. I am sure I am dreaming," Mark Martin said after winning his fifth race of the season for a 35-point lead.
All of a sudden it seemed feasible that the 50-year-old Martin, the sentimental favorite to win the championship, could become NASCAR's oldest champion. It wasn't a bad Chase debut for Juan Pablo Montoya, either. Making his 100th start on his 34th birthday, he won the pole with a record-breaking speed, led every practice session, led a race-high 104 laps and finished third.
Johnson didn't hurt his chances at history, either, finishing fourth.
Lows: Montoya wasn't pleased with Martin after the final three-lap sprint. He complained that his mentor held him up at the start of the second lap.
"What he did, not cool at all," Montoya said. "I could have wrecked him." Kasey Kahne saw his Chase hopes all but dashed when a blown engine left him 38th. Kyle Busch, after barely missing the Chase, finished fifth but was penalized 25 points and his crew chief was fined $25,000 because the car failed postrace inspection.
Highs: "I'm pretty sure that dude is Superman," Martin said.
Johnson won for the fifth time in 16 Dover starts and completed a season sweep at the Monster Mile to close within 10 points of second-place Martin.
"As far as sending a message, I hope it does," Johnson said. "I hope people are worried."
"It scared the heck out of me," Logano said. "It started rolling and I was in there like, 'Please make this thing stop!' It just kept going and going. You can't go on a roller coaster any worse than that."
Highs: Stewart, who led the point standings after 26 races, put himself back in championship contention with the victory. Martin finished seventh to extend his lead over Johnson, who was ninth, to 18 points.
"I don't think we should be getting all hyped up about the tally right now, you know? We've got a lot of racing to go," Martin said.
Montoya moved within 51 points of the lead with a fourth-place finish, his third straight top-5.
Lows: Another engine problem, another bad finish for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was 36th while the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates were in the top 10.
"It's just frustrating," NASCAR's most popular driver said after leading 41 laps. "We had a fast enough car to finish in the top 12."
Highs: "I just put my blinders on and worry about my little world I live in," Johnson said.
Want to know where Johnson took control? This is it. The dominating win gave him a 12-point lead over Martin, who finished fourth, that he never would relinquish.
Montoya finished third for his fourth straight top-5 but lost seven points.
"They're going to be hard to beat for this one," four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. "Really, unless they make a mistake, I don't see how they lose it."
Lows: This is where Denny Hamlin lost the Chase. His 37th-place finish after a Lap 195 crash left him ninth in the standings, 219 points out.
"I made a rookie mistake," said Hamlin, who got into Montoya on a restart. "I thought I was clear and I misjudged it."
Highs: "We're only halfway through this thing. So much can happen," Martin said.
Yeah, right. Johnson led every practice, won the pole, led the most laps and won for the third time in five Chase races to extend his lead to 90 over Martin.
Kahne had a nice third-place finish and Gordon was fourth, but still lost ground.
"If we don't have a problem, I feel we have a very good chance to win the championship -- racing for it," Johnson said.
Lows: It was a nightmare night for Martin, who finished 17th with an ill-handling car. It was an even worse night for Montoya and Hamlin.
Montoya had problems with Martin and Clint Bowyer on a restart to fall two laps down and finished 35th to fall 195 points behind Johnson. Hamlin blew an engine to finish 42nd. Earnhardt had a meltdown after qualifying, saying he was at the "end of my rope." He was at the end of the field, 38th, after the race.
Highs: Finishing second to Hamlin was plenty good for Johnson, who extended his points lead to 118 over Martin and 150 over third-place Gordon.
"If I felt like I had a car to win the race, I would have been up there leaning on him some," Johnson said.
Montoya bounced back with a third-place finish, but it still left him in fifth, 200 points back.
"Four good tracks coming up for us," Johnson said. "If we have no issues, I feel that we can race for this championship, and things will turn out as we want."
Lows: Earnhardt finished 29th, two laps down.
Highs: "From where we were with the red flag to where we finished, I'm still in shock," Johnson said.
So were a lot of other people. Johnson hung at the back most of the day. Due to a series of circumstances -- a late multicar crash that he avoided and late stop for gas -- he finished sixth to build his lead to 184 points.
Jamie McMurray won the race with a little luck of his own, but the story was Johnson.
"I thought I was going to lose points with about three or four [laps] to go," Johnson said.
Lows: NASCAR decided to crack down on bump-drafting in the corners, particularly on the two-car runaway. Drivers decided to turn this into a snooze-fest until the final laps, lining up in single file for much of the event.
And yet there still were two hard crashes at the end. The worst involved Ryan Newman, who was left dangling upside down in his car. He later turned NASCAR upside down with harsh comments about the rules.
"We should be able to race the race cars how we need to race them as drivers," Newman said. "If drivers can't respect each other, then we'll go ... out in the back parking lot and talk about it.
"NASCAR doesn't let us do that anymore, either."
Highs: "It was definitely not the day we wanted," Johnson said.
Judging by the cheers when Johnson crashed on Lap 3 after a run-in with Sam Hornish Jr., this may have been the high point of the Chase. The point leader's 38th-place finish allowed Martin, who was fourth, to trim 111 points off the lead and enter the final two races only 73 points back.
Kurt Busch won the race and brother Kyle was in position in his first outing for new crew chief Dave Rogers before misfiring on a late pit stop for fuel. But the big winners were the fans who wanted to see the Chase tighten.
"I'm still in a great position," said Johnson, who never left the car after more than one hour in the garage for repairs.
Lows: See Johnson above. Earnhardt also had another solid run spoiled when he misfired on a late stop for gas and finished 25th.
Highs: "I guess in the end, it could have been a statement that we're sending," Johnson said.
You think? Johnson rebounded from the Texas fiasco with his seventh win of the season and fourth of the Chase. He all but clinched the title with a 108-point margin over Martin.
RCR also flexed its muscles with a second-place finish by Jeff Burton and seventh by Clint Bowyer, but as usual it was overshadowed by Johnson.
"There was no doubt in my mind they were going to come out this week and make a statement," Hamlin said after finishing third.
Lows: Brian Vickers crashed and finished 38th to all but assure he would finish last in the Chase after putting Red Bull Racing in the field of 12 for the first time.
Highs: "History, boys! How about some history!" Johnson said as he crossed the finish line to secure the title.
Johnson's fifth-place finish gave him a final 141-point cushion, the largest in Chase history. A nice touch for a historical run.
Denny Hamlin won for the second time in the Chase and the third time in the last 11 races to establish himself as a contender for 2010. There also were some great fireworks with Stewart and Montoya banging each other like Richard Petty and David Pearson did in the good ol' days.
But as has been the case all Chase, the final spotlight was on Johnson.
"And he's not done yet," Martin said after finishing second in points for the fifth time.
Lows: Michael Waltrip finished 30th in his final race as a full-time driver.
Rick Hendrick was at a North Carolina hospital as his niece underwent an emergency liver transplant and not in Miami to celebrate his ninth Cup championship and help Johnson hoist the championship flag.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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