Jimmie Johnson claimed an unprecedented fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title by finishing second behind Carl Edwards in Sunday's season finale at Homestead. Johnson's title gave Rick Hendrick a record-breaking 10th title at NASCAR's top level.
Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driver Johnson had set the goal of winning the last race of the season in order to defend his title and came just one position short of that, doing enough to remain NASCAR's benchmark for yet another year and rewriting the record books for the second year in a row.
Johnson made the most of his rivals' mistakes and delivered his best race ever at Homestead in order to overcome a 15-point deficit to Denny Hamlin, who could only manage a 14th-place finish despite recovering from an early incident.
Hamlin stumbled as early as lap 24 while charging back from a poor qualifying which left him only 37th on the grid. Trying to overtake Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle out of Turn 2, the Joe Gibbs racer ran into the right rear of his rival's Ford, bending the right corner of the front splitter and forcing lengthy repairs.
After his crew were able to fix the damage as best as they could, the 30-year-old made an impressive comeback which saw him get back in position to win his first Sprint Cup title. However, Hamlin was unable to stay ahead of his championship rivals in the decisive part of the race, dropping a lap down following his final stop under green. Despite getting back on the lead lap, he was unable to make much progress in the closing stages.
While Johnson was a top-five contender all day, only dropping in the order occasionally due to a couple of long pit stops, third title contender Kevin Harvick looked capable of contending for victory. However, as soon as he got in the lead following pit stops under the seventh caution of the day, he was handed a speeding penalty.
The Richard Childress racer drove back through the field in anger, clipping Hamlin's teammate Kyle Busch in the process and putting him out of the race only 23 laps from the checkered flag. Harvick continued to put the pressure on in the closing stages and got up to third by the flag, ending up just two points short of beating Hamlin to the runner-up spot in the championship.
Ahead, Edwards rounded out a dominating performance on the way to his second win in a row, his second of the season and also his second at Homestead, giving Jack Roush a seventh victory in 12 races at the Florida track. However all eyes were on the No. 48 Chevy as Johnson made further history with five titles to his name, which places him behind only NASCAR's greatest Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in the all-time champions list.
"Four [titles] was amazing, now I have to figure out what the hell to say about winning five of these things because everybody is going to want to know what it means," said Johnson, who became the first driver in the history of the Chase format to overcome a points deficit in the final race of the season to win the title. "I don't know! It is pretty damn awesome I can tell you that.
"We really didn't talk about much on the radio, but I could see in the mirror where the guys were – where Kevin was and where the 11 [Hamlin] was. When he got in front of me and was two spots in front of me, I thought, 'Man, it's going to be tough now.'
"I expected them to be there, but we had a restart or two and we went forward and they went backward and off it went. [Crew chief] Chad [Knaus] made some great adjustments on the car and we were up there chasing Carl around and put in a great finish there in second."
Hamlin was devastated after the race. He rued the incident that damaged the front end of his car as, despite his team's best efforts, he felt his No. 11 Toyota was never the same after the incident.
"Obviously, I'm disappointed," said Hamlin. "Our car just wasn't the same. Our car was lightning fast up until that wreck. When we hit the 16 [Biffle] it just knocked the toe out and the car just didn't drive the same for the rest of the day.
"We did our best to try to repair it, but it just wasn't as fast as it was before. We were right around the top 10 when that happened. It's just circumstances."
Harvick was glad to go down fighting all the way down to the final lap of the season even if he missed on his best shot yet at winning the title. His third place in the championship was his best result in the Sprint Cup standings in his 10 full seasons at NASCAR's top level.
"We came here and did exactly what we wanted to do and that was go down swinging, so I am just really proud of everybody for doing that," said Harvick. "We got a penalty there in the middle of the race and that set us back a little bit but we overcame that almost immediately really. Two runs and we were right back where we needed to be. In the end, those guys kind of outran us on that restart and we got beaten. But, we didn't go down without trying."
Aric Almirola scored his best Cup race result with an impressive fourth-place finish ahead of his Richard Petty Motorsports teammate AJ Allmendinger. Their former teammate and Sunday's polesitter Kasey Kahne rounded out his best race for Red Bull Racing by finishing sixth.
The season finale did not run without some controversy as Joey Logano caused Juan Pablo Montoya to crash under caution in retaliation for an earlier incident where he made contact with the Earnhardt Ganassi driver while battling for position with RCR's Clint Bowyer.