Clarke: Johnson sets a new mark in NASCAR excellence

  • Liz Clarke The Washington Post
  • Sunday, November 22, 2009 6:23pm
  • SportsSports

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson did what he had to, finishing a solid fifth in NASCAR’s season finale Sunday to clinch a fourth consecutive Sprint Cup championship and, in doing so, set a new mark for excellence in stock-car racing.

Only one driver stood a chance of denying Johnson his claim on history — his teammate Mark Martin, at 50 the senior member of Hendrick Motorsports’s four-racer stable. But Martin needed a pair of miracles to play the spoiler at Homestead-Miami Speedway — a misstep by Johnson, who needed to only finish 25th or better to clinch the title, and a near flawless performance of his own.

It wasn’t to be.

With NASCAR’s most prestigious title at stake, Johnson, 34, was prudent from start to finish, leading the first lap to collect bonus points that padded his lead further and steering clear of trouble that befell others on the track and in the pits.

Martin, wrestling with an ill-handling car, never posed a threat. He finished 12th and, with it, ended the season as runner-up for NASCAR’s championship for the fifth time in his 27-year career.

Johnson roared into Victory Lane still spewing smoke from his celebratory burnouts. And as fireworks lit up the night sky over the speedway’s backstretch, Johnson smothered his wife, Chandra, with a kiss and struggled for words.

Indeed, it was difficult to grasp that this perfectly polished Southern Californian who started racing motocross at age 5 had achieved something NASCAR legends Richard Petty, Junior Johnson and the late Dale Earnhardt never managed.

“It’s going to take a little while to sink it,” Johnson said. “To do something that’s never been done (and) love this sport like I do and respect it like I do? It’s awesome!”

The race capped an extraordinary season for Hendrick Motorsports, which collected its ninth Sprint Cup championship (tying Petty Enterprises’ all-time mark) and its 12th NASCAR title in all divisions of racing.

Moreover, Hendrick drivers finished first (Johnson), second (Martin) and third (Jeff Gordon) in the standings. And Hendrick Motorsports supplied the engines for the season’s sixth-place finisher, Tony Stewart, whose tangling with Juan Pablo Montoya midway through Sunday’s race cost both drivers dearly.

Martin was quick to squelch any notion that he was frustrated by yet another runner-up finish for NASCAR’s championship, counting himself “one of the luckiest guys in the world” to have been coaxed out of partial retirement by team owner Rick Hendrick and handed the job of a lifetime.

Sunday’s finale capped a season that, by almost any measure, has been a challenge for NASCAR.

Two of the four automakers that compete in NASCAR — Chrysler and General Motors — declared bankruptcy during the summer. Race-day attendance was noticeably down at tracks in Michigan, Southern California and throughout the circuit. And NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., not only failed to win a race, extending his winless streak to 57 races, but also finished a career-worst 25th in the standings.

TV ratings continued their slide. And the drop — down by double digits at most events — suggests that NASCAR’s struggles aren’t simply related to the economy. It suggests that its races aren’t capturing fans’ attention, and its drivers aren’t captivating fans’ imagination, with the fervor they have in the past.

But Sunday was an occasion for celebrating. And Hendrick Motorsports wasn’t the only team with cause.

Denny Hamlin delivered the race victory — his fourth of the season — for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota, leading 71 of the 267 laps around the 1.5-mile, gently banked oval. He was followed across the finish by the Chevys of Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick, teammates at Richard Childress Racing.

But Montoya and Stewart delivered what NASCAR fans pay to see — passion and paint-swapping — shortly after the midpoint of the race. The roughhousing started when Montoya intentionally rammed Stewart smack in the bumper, and Stewart pulled high on the track, then cut low to smack Montoya’s Chevy on its right side. The impact cut Montoya’s right-front tire and sent the Colombian into the wall.

“They ought to suspend that (expletive)!” Montoya shrieked over his radio,

He spent the next 28 laps in the garage for repairs, then returned to the track, stalked down Stewart’s Chevy and turned it sideways, skidding across the asphalt.

NASCAR officials black-flagged Montoya for aggressive driving, holding him two laps for punishment.

While it wasn’t the most mature display of driving, it brought fans to their feet and harkened back to an era when stock-car racers vented their emotions with more abandon, and fans responded in kind.

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