|Jimmie Johnson wins 6th NASCAR championship|
|Sunday, November 17, 2013 9:02 PM|
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Back on top with only two NASCAR greats left to catch, Jimmie Johnson won his sixth championship in eight years Sunday and staked his claim as one of the most dominant competitors in sports history.
Johnson, needing only to finish 23rd or better to spoil Matt Kenseth’s career season, was on cruise control most of the day at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson’s lone hiccup came when traffic stacked-up on a restart and he and Kenseth made slight contact, causing Johnson to plunge 15 spots in the field with damage to his fender.
He rallied to finish ninth and beat Kenseth for the title by 19 points.
Now looming large in Johnson’s windshield is the mark of seven titles held by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt. Johnson barely got to finish his celebratory burnouts before the debate began: Where does “Six-Pack” rank among the greats in NASCAR?
“I have six and we’ll see if I can get seven,” Johnson replied. “Time will tell. I think we need to save the argument until I hang up the helmet, then it’s worth the argument. Let’s wait until I hang up the helmet until we really start thinking about this.”
Kenseth, needing a Johnson collapse to have any shot at the title, positioned himself to pounce should anything go awry. Kenseth led a race-high 144 laps and finished second to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin.
“It was just unbelievable year for us. Obviously, we wanted to win the championship as good as we ran all year,” said Kenseth, winner of seven races in his first season with JGR.
Kenseth’s effort just wasn’t enough against a Hendrick Motorsports team that wouldn’t be denied for a third consecutive year.
“If Jimmie would have got a flat or something, that would have been all right,” Kenseth lamented. “Never seen anything like this in the sport and probably never will again. … Maybe he’ll retire.”
Johnson won a record five straight titles from 2006-10, was mathematically eliminated before the 2011 finale and was back in the title hunt last season. Only he had a tire failure in the penultimate race at Phoenix and then a mechanical failure in the finale to lose the championship to Brad Keselowski.
His 2-year drought is over and his crew was ready for the party on the South Beach.
“You better get a sip of that (water) bottle; it’s the only healthy liquid you’re going to get all night,” crew chief Chad Knaus radioed Johnson after he crossed the finish line.
Johnson planned to savor every moment of the celebration and his championship reign.
“This is extremely sweet. I feel like those five years were a blur. And things happen so fast,” Johnson added. “It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it or appreciate it or respect what happened. It just went by so fast it seems like. Now, I’m really going to slow things down here and enjoy it. This is so, so sweet.”
It was just as special for Hamlin, who bounced back from a fractured vertebra earlier this season that sidelined him for over a month. Hamlin hasn’t been the same since and Sunday’s victory, his first of the year, extended his winning streak to eight seasons.
“Is the year over yet?” a grinning Hamlin asked in Victory Lane. “Man, I wanted to keep that streak alive.”
Hamlin’s celebration was brief as the victory stage was cleared for Johnson. Hamlin nearly stood atop the podium in 2010, when he took Johnson down to the wire, only to fade in the finale as Johnson claimed his record fifth consecutive title.
So Hamlin could commiserate with new teammate Kenseth, who won set career marks this year in wins, poles, laps led and average start.
“Unfortunately, we’re racing during the Jimmie Johnson era,” Hamlin added. “We’re just unlucky in that sense. I think being out there and racing with him, I can say he’s the best that there ever was. He’s racing against competition that is tougher than this sport’s ever seen.”
The numbers back up Hamlin’s claim.
— Johnson is the youngest driver to win six titles, beating Petty to the mark by 83 days. He’s also the fastest to six titles, as neither Petty nor Earnhardt did it in an 8-year span.
— His 66 Sprint Cup wins since 2002 are 30 more than any other driver has won in the last 11 years.
But his crew chief Knaus isn’t too shabby, either.
Knaus ranks second on the all-time championship list behind Dale Inman, who won eight. But Knaus is the only crew chief to win more than two titles in a row. His 64 career wins are all with Johnson.
Darian Grubb, who was part of three of Johnson’s titles and won his own championship in 2011 as Tony Stewart’s crew chief, said the No. 48 team never settles.
“Its consistency, always being there at the finish,” added Grubb, now Hamlin’s crew chief. “You have to be able to get that top-10 run, just have to be able to do that.”
Indeed, Johnson won the title this year with a 5.1 average finish over the 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship races. The mark was second only to the 5.0 average he posted in 2007 when he beat teammate Jeff Gordon for his second title.
It was 4-time champion Gordon that discovered Johnson racing in the Nationwide Series in 2001 and convinced team owner Rick Hendrick to hire him for a new fourth team.
“You know, they are unbelievable and they proved it again this year just how good they are as a group, as a team,” Gordon added. “Jimmie as a driver, Chad as a crew chief, Hendrick Motorsports, everybody is just so good. But specifically, the No. 48, they just have a chemistry and a way to make incredible things happen especially at the right times. That is unbelievable — six championships.”
Hamlin wins Cup race for 8th consecutive year: Hamlin’s victory in NASCAR’s season finale salvaged something from an otherwise forgettable season.
Hamlin says “as bad as the year is, we can take a little solace in this finish.”
Little went right in 2013. Hamlin broke a vertebra in his lower back in a last-lap crash at California in March, sat out four races and then dealt with pain and discomfort for months. He started to “turn the corner” around the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship in early September but figured the streak would end along with the season.
Mark Martin treating Homestead as his final race: The greatest driver to never win a NASCAR championship is treating the season finale as if it’s the last race of his career.
Mark Martin has no plans to race beyond Sunday’s Sprint Cup finale. If he follows through, it will end a career that began with his 1981 Cup debut and covered 40 victories and five runner-up finishes in the championship standings.
“For nearly 40 years, I have measured myself against the best stock car drivers of the era,” he tweeted early Sunday. “It’s been (hashtag) 1HellOfaRide.”
Martin was flooded with praise on Twitter from fellow drivers. Jeff Burton called him an “intense competitor with an equal amount of values. Made entire sport better through his actions” and Joey Logano wrote he was his favorite driver as a kid.
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti, who spent half a season in NASCAR, paid his respects from Scotland, calling Martin in a tweet “a total legend and one on the best people I’ve ever met.”
Martin has said he’s done racing before, only to be lured back into the car. His partial schedule this year was even expanded when he agreed to drive 12 races as Tony Stewart’s injury replacement.
Martin has not used the word retirement in discussing his future plans but he’s turned down every driving offer brought to him for 2014 and just needs some time away right now.
“I’m kind of tired. I might not make the best decisions right now,” he added. “I’ll still have an opportunity to satisfy my competitive fire and still be able to be involved in the sport at whatever level I want to be. And we’ll let that kind of materialize as we move forward past Homestead.”
The opportunities will be with Stewart-Haas Racing, where Stewart has a ton of projects for Martin to work on in a role that has yet to be formalized.
Since breaking his leg in August, Stewart has been able to watch his drivers from the sidelines and offer input. He believes Martin will be a tremendous asset in a similar role, particularly with Danica Patrick.
Martin also can be a sounding board for SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli, Stewart said.
“I think Mark is a great liaison between us as drivers and the crew chiefs and Zippy,” Stewart added. “Mark’s got so much practical knowledge and experience. Mark is good with people and I think that is a lot of value to me. I think it’s a little easier for Mark to help Danica.
“But I think Mark can make me better. You’re crazy if you’re a driver and think you can’t learn and that you can’t be better. Having someone like Mark do that, if he sees I’m not driving in the corner hard enough or I’m arcing my entry too much or not enough, whatever. Mark can see that and tell you to think about this.”
Penske, Hornish part ways after decade together: Roger Penske and Sam Hornish Jr. have been together for nearly 300 races over the last decade.
They have celebrated an IndyCar championship as well as wins in two series across nine states. They have been dominant and disappointed. They have turned a working relationship into a lifelong friendship.
So parting ways won’t be easy.
Hornish drove his final race for Penske when he finished 12th in the Nationwide Series season finale Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Hornish came up three points shy of going out with a championship.
He ended up second to Austin Dillon in the final standings. Sprint Cup regular Kyle Busch won the race. Hornish was near the front for much of the 200 laps but faltered down the stretch on worn tires.
Now, he faces an uncertain future.
“To see Sam race at the level he did with Kyle, right there all night, shows what a great racer he is,” Penske said. “My issue with myself is I started him in the Cup level with no practice. One of the greatest open-wheel racers we had in IndyCar, I think maybe I started his career backwards.”
So far, Hornish has no ride set up for 2014. He declined to even talk to Chip Ganassi Racing about replacing Dario Franchitti, the 4-time IndyCar champion who abruptly retired earlier this week because of injuries and health concerns.
With Hornish committed to stock-car racing, some wonder where he will land next season.
Penske, though, doesn’t believe Hornish’s NASCAR career is over.
“I think people want him,” added Penske, who still managed to win the Nationwide owners’ championship. “I think he’s going to have a chance to drive something next year. A couple things out there look quite promising. I would support him always.
“He needs to have a good ride because he’s a quality guy, a family man. Remember, he won an Indy 500 for us. That’s pretty special.”
Indeed, Hornish won the 2006 Indianapolis 500. He won seven other times for Penske in IndyCar. He moved to NASCAR full time in 2008 but has mostly struggled while learning the nuances of stock cars.
He had eight top-10 finishes and led just 55 laps in three years — and he was out of a ride in 2011 when Penske ran out of sponsorship for the project. Hornish ran just 14 races, only one in the Sprint Cup series, that entire year.
He got another shot came when Penske began piecing together sponsorship packages. There was enough money for 20 Cup races in 2012 and a full Nationwide Series schedule. He ran another full Nationwide schedule this year.
But Penske told the 34-year-old Hornish he needs to be racing in the Cup series, where he doesn’t have a spot for his longtime driver.
Hornish hasn’t even hinted about his future, only saying he’d rather be a NASCAR test driver than an IndyCar regular
Dillon edges Hornish for Nationwide title: With tears in eyes and three fingers in the air, Richard Childress hardly had words to describe his latest NASCAR championship.
His grandson, Dillon, won the Nationwide Series title in the famed No. 3 and by three points.
“Hard to believe,” Childress said. “I couldn’t be more proud of Austin. He drives with his heart every lap. What can you say? He’s just a great competitor, a great grandson. I’m proud, really proud of him. He ran good and hard tonight.”
Sprint Cup regular Brad Keselowski won the season finale Saturday, moving up 10 spots in the closing few laps to give an otherwise typical race a wild and wacky finish.
But the night belonged to Dillon, who overcame a sluggish start and a scrape against the wall to finish 12th. It was good enough to hold off Hornish by three points. Hornish crossed the line eighth.
“It was ugly,” said Dillon, who won the Truck Series title in 2011. “Probably the worst car we had all year. But we fought. My guys kept me positive in the car.”
Hornish looked as if he would overcome an eight-point deficit in the standings for much of the 200-lap race but a lengthy caution late posed problems. NASCAR slowed the race for 12 laps — tied for the longest caution of the year — and it turned out to be a setback for Hornish.
NASCAR defended its decision to keep the race under caution.
“When you’re in situations like that, the most important thing is getting the track race ready,” explained Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition. “You know, you can look at, you can use your hindsight every chance that you want to, but in this particular time, we did the best we could to do, and it was more important to get the track ready.”
Keselowski got new tires during the final caution and used them to weave his way through traffic. He went from 11th to first in a 2-lap span after the restart. And once he was out front, no one was catching him.
Certainly not Dillon and Hornish, who were stuck on old tires because they had used their allotment.
Keselowski finished the season with seven victories, all in the last 10 of his 16 series starts.
Rookie Kyle Larson finished second, followed Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Trevor Bayne.
Busch closing Nationwide team because of funding: Kyle Busch said he is closing his Nationwide Series team because of a lack of sponsorship.
Parker Kligerman ran the entire season for Busch in the No. 77 Toyota and had 13 top-10 finishes.
Busch drove the car in 2012, when he went winless in the Nationwide Series. He went back to driving Joe Gibbs Racing’s cars in Nationwide this year — winning 12 times — and used Kligerman in his Kyle Busch Motorsports car.
Busch also fields three entries in the Truck Series and won Friday night’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It clinched the owners’ championship for Busch, who won eight races as an owner. Busch had six victories; Darrell Wallace Jr. and 17-year-old Erik Jones also won for the team.