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Johnson's legacy continues in motorsports

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Homestead, FL (Sports Network) - Jimmie Johnson being the greatest race car driver of all time makes for a great debate, but one thing is for sure after he claimed his record-extending fifth consecutive Sprint Cup Series championship, Johnson has earned a spot among the best ever in motorsports history.

Johnson finished second on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway and ended the year 39 points ahead of Denny Hamlin, who finished 14th. Johnson became the first driver in the championship Chase to overcome a points deficit in the season-finale since NASCAR began its playoff format for its top-tier series in 2004. He came to Homestead 15 points behind Hamlin, which was the closest margin between the top-two drivers heading into the last race.

His fifth title put him into sole possession of third on the series' all-time championship list, two behind NASCAR Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.

Johnson, who completed his ninth full season in the series, won his fifth championship quicker than Earnhardt and Petty. It took Earnhardt 13 full seasons to win his fifth title, while Petty accomplished the feat in his 16th year in the sport.

"I guess I haven't thought much about where we are in looking up at what Petty and Earnhardt have done," Johnson said. "I would love to tie them. I would love to surpass them. I don't know how realistic that is. I never thought that I would get to this point.

"We'll enjoy five for the off-season and come back and start working on six next year. We are a hell of a lot closer now than we were before the day [Sunday] started."

At the start of the season, Hamlin was considered Johnson's biggest threat for the championship. Despite a season-high eight wins, Hamlin came up short of dethroning Johnson's dynasty.

Jimmie Johnson definitely is among the creme de la creme in the motorsports world.
"We came close, but close doesn't cut it," Hamlin said. "[Johnson's team] stepped up and performed at the end of the race like they needed to."

Johnson's latest accomplishment puts him in the elite company of auto racing greats Michael Schumacher and John Force. Schumacher won seven Formula One championships, including five in a row from 2000-04. Last week, Force notched his 15th National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Funny Car championship. Ten of his titles came consecutively from 1993-2002.

Whether you're a Johnson fan or not, he definitely is among the creme de la creme in the motorsports world.

"I feel like I have received a ton of respect for what we have done," he said. "I've watched our fan base grow leaps and bounds. People tell me they hate me, but they respect me, and that's always cool. A guy had an "I hate 48" t-shirt on when I was on the SPEED [television] stage, but he was giving me a thumbs- up and said congratulations."

All of Johnson's championships have come under the guidance and hard work of crew chief Chad Knaus and the No.48 Hendrick Motorsports team. While it looked as though Johnson's "drive for five" was in jeopardy two weeks ago when he sat 33 points behind Hamlin, HMS swapped Jeff Gordon's No.24 pit crew with Johnson's crew after the No.48 team struggled with their pit stops at Texas.

Johnson finished ninth at Texas, but rallied with top-five runs at Phoenix and Homestead.

"I think if you really sat back and looked at what this guy can do with a race car, you would be pretty impressed," Knaus said. "He's been in some pretty precarious situations and driven through them. He's put his nose in places that other people would not do and not be able to pull off."

Knaus, who has been with Johnson since his rookie Cup season in 2002, is now second on the all-time crew chief championship list. He is three titles away from tying Dale Inman on the list. Inman won seven championships with Petty and one with Terry Labonte.

Rick Hendrick picked up his 10th owner's championship, which also set a record in the series. Hendrick had been tied with Petty Enterprises with nine titles.

"I'm very appreciative of the fact that we have been able to win these races and championships," Hendrick said. "I said a few years back, I would like to get to 200 [wins] and ten championships before I quit. We are at the championship deal, but I think we have got five more to get to 200."

He's actually six wins away from 200.

But don't expect Hendrick to retire anytime soon, especially if Johnson's championship streak moves ahead.

Now that Johnson's drive for five is complete, next year's title campaign is likely to be dubbed the "six pack."

"We like beer, so it works," Johnson quipped.

So here's a message to Johnson and the No.48 team. Start putting the brewski on ice.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

Follow Chris Symeon on Twitter and Facebook.

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