“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.
“Unfortunately, we’re racing during the Jimmie Johnson era,” Hamlin said. “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.
_ 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,” said 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 four-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 said. “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.”