Jimmie Johnson made NASCAR history by securing an unprecedented fourth consecutive Sprint Cup Series title with a fifth-place finish in the season finale at Homestead.
The Californian only needed 25th place to clinch the title, but he wanted to wrap up yet another impressive season in style, something that seemed to be in the cards in the early going when he led the race from pole position.
However, after he lost the lead to Tony Stewart on lap 33, he was never back in position to contend for victory again. A calculated approach took over from then on, one that allowed him to avoid incidents and drama as he did more than enough to secure the title.
Mark Martin, the only driver who could prevent Johnson's sweep, was never really in position to spring a surprise and a 12th-place finish was all he could manage.
Besides finishing in fifth, Johnson didn't put a foot wrong. His lowest position during the race was 24th place when he pitted out of sequence under the fourth caution of the day, but Martin followed him down pit road. From there, he cautiously moved up in the order despite some less than perfect pit stops, only letting himself get into a few battles, the last of them with his Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon.
The man who introduced Johnson to Rick Hendrick back in 2000 escorted him across the finish line to see him match Gordon's own number of titles and write another page of glory for Hendrick Motorsports with a record-matching ninth Sprint Cup Series title, also sweeping the top three spots in the standings for the first time in the series' history.
Johnson's fifth place was historically his best finishing position to clinch the championship since his first title in 2006. The Californian was still in disbelief about his achievement, one that admittedly he never planned for.
"I'm just amazed," said Johnson. "I mean, I've been trying to chase this out of my head and what this might mean to me after the disappointment at Texas. So, it is going to take a little while for those things to jump start in my mind and get going again.
"Just so proud of the effort. Really think of how much I love this sport, how much I respect this sport. The greats before, how they have carried this sport on their backs and made it what it is and then to do something none of them have done, it is unbelievable man. I grew up on two wheels in the dirt. I had no clue I was going to end up here racing stock cars and doing something that had never been done before."
Martin summed up his defeat in the championship battle with commendable honesty. "My equipment is just as good, but I am not as good as Jimmie Johnson," explained Martin. "We are lacking something here just a little bit and we will work on it for next year. But it was really a privilege to even have a crack at it."
But while all eyes were on Johnson's achievement, Denny Hamlin was able to round out another good season with his first Homestead victory. The Joe Gibbs driver got to the lead for the first time under caution on lap 158 when his team performed a perfect four-tire stop that allowed him to jump Kurt Busch. The lead would swap hands a few times after that, but on the final restart Hamlin passed a vulnerable Busch, who only changed two tires on his last stop.
The race went without incident for the last 46 laps, allowing Hamlin to open up a healthy lead and take an uncontested fourth win this year, one that helped him jump three places up to fifth in the final standings. Despite his moment of glory, he was full of praise for Johnson and his team on their achievement.
"I promise you the next couple of years we're going to win a championship," said Hamlin. "With three DNF's [during the Chase] – you look at the final point standings and call a DNF 100 points and we were right there."
"But those guys have been the standard. They haven't made mistakes and that's who we ultimately want to beat are the guys who are a dominating force like them. Four in a row for them and I couldn't be happier for him [Johnson]. There's no more deserving champion than them."
Jeff Burton continued to show clear signs of improvement for Richard Childress Racing with another second place after also being runner-up at Phoenix last week, followed this time by teammate Kevin Harvick. Kurt Busch survived with only two new tires from his final stop to finish fourth ahead of Johnson.
In the middle of the championship story, there was still space for some controversy. Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya had a couple of exchanges while fighting for position, the first of them when the Colombian got into the back of the two-time champion after Stewart slid up in front of him as he exited the turn, Stewart's slower speed making the contact hard to avoid. Stewart retaliated soon after by intentionally driving into the side of Montoya's car, causing a puncture that sent Montoya against the Turn 3 wall.
After lengthy repairs in the garage, Montoya rejoined the race several laps down and repaid the favor, pushing Stewart into a spin at the exit of Turn 4. NASCAR officials were unimpressed, holding Montoya for two laps in the pits as a penalty. The poor finish dropped him from sixth down to eighth in the final standings.
Notable was Marcos Ambrose's run in the early laps, when he grabbed the lead from Jimmie Johnson before a cut tire forced him to pit a few laps later. Electrical issues and further incidents quickly turned his day into a nightmare, the Australian finishing down in 35th place.
Pos Driver Car Laps
1. Denny Hamlin Toyota 267
2. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 267
3. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 267
4. Kurt Busch Dodge 267
5. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 267
6. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 267
7. Carl Edwards Ford 267
8. Kyle Busch Toyota 267
9. Martin Truex Jr Chevrolet 267
10. AJ Allmendinger Ford 267
11. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 267
12. Mark Martin Chevrolet 267
13. Matt Kenseth Ford 267
14. Greg Biffle Ford 267
15. David Reutimann Toyota 267
16. Bill Elliott Ford 267
17. Kasey Kahne Dodge 267
18. Jamie McMurray Ford 267
19. Casey Mears Chevrolet 267
20. Brian Vickers Toyota 267
21. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 267
22. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 267
23. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 267
24. Joey Logano Toyota 267
25. Brad Keselowski Dodge 267
26. Paul Menard Ford 267
27. Scott Speed Toyota 267
28. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 267
29. David Gilliland Toyota 267
30. Michael Waltrip Toyota 267
31. Bobby Labonte Chevrolet 267
32. Regan Smith Chevrolet 267
33. John Andretti Chevrolet 267
34. David Ragan Ford 267
35. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 251
36. Erik Darnell Ford 247
37. Travis Kvapil Chevrolet 243
38. Juan Pablo Montoya Chevrolet 235
39. Robby Gordon Toyota 227
40. Reed Sorenson Dodge 116
41. Elliott Sadler Dodge 116
42. Terry Labonte Toyota 88
43. Michael McDowell Toyota 35