For Jimmie Johnson, a ninth-place finish in Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was enough to secure him his sixth NASCAR championship.
Johnson ended the year 19 points ahead of second-place Matt Kenseth, who finished runner-up to teammate Denny Hamlin, in the Ford EcoBoost 400. With the exception of a close call on a restart which resulted in slight damage to his car, Johnson had a relatively uneventful outing Sunday.
"This is extremely sweet," Johnson said. "I feel like those five years were a blur, and things happened so fast. It's not that I didn't enjoy it or appreciate it or didn't respect what happened. It just went by so fast, it seems like. I'm really going to slow things down here and enjoy it. This is so, so sweet."
Just needing to finish 23rd or better, Johnson quickly settled into a rhythm from his seventh starting position, sticking to his gameplan of not taking risks and avoiding anything that might jeopardize his title hopes. And for the majority of the first half of the race he followed the script, running in the top five, and at one point was second to Kenseth, who led a race-high 144 laps.
The biggest challenge Johnson faced was on the numerous restarts when those around him would fan-out three- and four-wide. It was on one of those restarts where Johnson sustained damage after contact with Kenseth who was trying to steer clear of a slower car ahead.
"I had contact from behind that pushed me up into the 20 (Kenseth) and both of us were out of control and sliding toward the outside fence at that point," Johnson said. "I didn't know what to think. They got us mired back in traffic and made the last 50 laps kind of interesting."
Johnson quickly fell back with smoke appearing to emanate from the left front tire. The scare proved to be a false alarm, as the No. 48 car didn't suffer a cut tire and Johnson continued on. A caution on Lap 206 gave his crew an opportunity to make repairs, and he was quickly back inside the top-10.
The title was Johnson's sixth in 12 seasons, and gives him a résumé that puts him in discussion for greatest driver of all-time. Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt each won seven championships. And the debate of where he ranks in the pantheon of great drivers is one Johnson wants to wait to have.
"I think we need to save the argument until I hang up the helmet; then it's worth the argument," Johnson said. "If people want to argue and fight about it right now then they can. But let's wait until I hang up the helmet before we start thinking about this."