Anyone in sports who manages to win five consecutive championships must be quite a special individual. It takes a lot of hard work, self-discipline, leadership and a great team around you to be able to keep such a long streak going.
Lance Armstrong won seven times in a row in the Tour de France, Roger Federer put a string of five Wimbledon trophies together as did Bjorn Borg before him, and also the New York Yankees won five consecutive World Series titles between the late 1940s and early 1950s.
When you think of achieving such a feat in motorsports, where countless variables come into play, then you must be quite a phenomenon to remain unbeaten for five seasons, as Michael Schumacher was in his golden years at Ferrari between 2000 and 2004. With such close racing as you have in NASCAR, the odds of seeing a different winner every weekend are obviously higher than in other forms of motorsport, so you would naturally expect different names to crop up at the top of the standings every other year. Yet somehow, Jimmie Johnson and his team have managed to remain the class of the Sprint Cup field once again in 2010, casting a longer shadow over NASCAR's top-notch series.
The 35-year-old has won five championships in a row, although more precisely he has been the best in the 10-race stretch of the play-offs - known as the Chase - since 2006 and only Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart were able to win under the format before Johnson and the #48 team started to dominate. Looking at the stats since 2004, when the Chase was first implemented, Johnson has not always been the one accumulating the most points through the 36 races of the pre-Chase season in the years when he has been crowned champion.
Actually he has only done so twice, in 2006 and 2009, which goes to show just how much emphasis he and his Hendrick Motorsports bunch put on those final 10 championship-deciding races. Their season is a continuous build-up process towards hitting top form come September when the Chase kicks off and even when others haven shown better through the first 26 weeks of the season, once the play-off starts the cream rises to the top. And it's been Johnson on top of everyone else for the past five years.
McMurray and Ganassi started on a high with Daytona 500 victory © LAT
However, neither the season nor the Chase started for Johnson as he would've wanted and there were others making the headlines through 2010. Jamie McMurray was the first to put up his name on the winner's list this year with victory in the season-opening Daytona 500, giving team owner Chip Ganassi his first win in NASCAR's equivalent to the Superbowl.
Johnson bounced back from disappointment a week later with victory in his home race at Fontana, where the Richard Childress Racing trio of Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer showed their squad had regained its old mojo, following a dismal 2009 when they all missed the play-off. Harvick clipped the wall but finished second at the California track, taking the series lead for the first time during the year. He stayed up front for four weeks until Johnson jumped him in the standings following victory at Las Vegas, a career first at Bristol and a second place behind Denny Hamlin at Martinsville.
Johnson's form during the regular season was full of up and downs though, and a few double-digit finishes, plus Harvick's first win of the season at Talladega, propelled the RCR driver back into the points lead in May.
Harvick's consistency allowed him to remain there all the way through to the 26th race of the season, where the points were reset for the top 12 in the standings. He won twice more before that, with victories at Daytona in July and Michigan in August. However a driver that continuously got momentum as the season progressed was Joe Gibbs Racing's Hamlin.
Before the season reached its halfway point, he had already claimed five wins and they had come at almost every kind of track besides restrictor-plate ones - where the ECR-powered Chevys of Childress and Ganassi were unbeatable. Hamlin started to show the edge needed to beat the Johnson establishment and he proved his point in the final race of the regular season at Richmond, where he claimed his sixth win of the year, placing himself at the top of the Chase standings, 10 points ahead of Johnson. The Hendrick driver had won five times by then including his first road-course career win at Sears Point, after Australian Marcos Ambrose famously stalled his car while leading behind the pace car in the closing stages of the race.
Bowyer's Loudon triumph was controversial © LAT
The Chase started at Loudon with controversy, after RCR's Bowyer won the first round of the play-off before officials deemed his car illegal. A 150-point penalty plus further punishments virtually cut the wings of his championship hopes, while Hamlin's second place allowed him to stretch his lead to his main opponents, especially Johnson, who had an eventful race which saw him finish only 25th. However he was back on his feet the following week at Dover with a dominant win from pole position, which was followed with a second place at Kansas that vaulted him back into control of the Chase.
Top-three finishes at Fontana and Charlotte followed, strengthening Johnson's claim for a fifth title, but Hamlin was not giving up just yet. The JGR driver won for the second time during the year at Martinsville and Texas, reclaiming the lead of the championship with just two races to go. Then came Phoenix, when he seemed on the verge of securing a nice cushion heading into the season finale, only for fuel mileage to hamper what had otherwise been an emphatic display. Instead, Hamlin only managed a 15th place finish to Johnson's fifth, which meant only 15 points split the pair heading to Homestead. Harvick's consistency, despite no wins in the play-off, was rewarded with a chance of fighting for the title in the final round as he trailed leader Hamlin by only 46 points.
History didn't bode well for Johnson as only twice since 1975 had a driver beat the points leader to the title in the final race. However, he looked more comfortable and relaxed than in any of his previous championship years. On the track he put up a solid qualifying and as he jumped out of his car following the final practice session of the year, he clapped to his crew reassuring every member of his team that they were capable of pulling it off once again. Meanwhile Hamlin seemed under massive pressure while trying to grab his first clear shot at a NASCAR title with both hands.
A poor qualifying was just the start of an eventful weekend for Hamlin and the look on his face before the race told every bit of how he was feeling inside. Harvick seemed as focused as he could be on getting the best out of the final race of the year, even if that meant upsetting a few people down the road. In the end Hamlin's worst nightmares came true when he made contact with Greg Biffle early in the race, handing Johnson an opportunity that you couldn't afford to give to a four-time reigning champion.
Johnson celebrates yet again © LAT
Hamlin was able to recover with his battered car to a 14th-place finish, but Johnson's second place was more than enough to secure a fifth title. Harvick drove in anger to take third place after speeding in the pits and putting Kyle Busch against the wall, but all the glory was for the #48 team led by Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus.
Only legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt are now ahead of Johnson in the all-time champions list in NASCAR's top series. However neither of them was able to put a string of a five championships together as the Californian has managed. Fans in the US and across the world polarise between either admiring his feat or turning off their TVs, unwilling to see Johnson win again.
Back in 2003, the final year of the old cumulative points system, Matt Kenseth won his first and only title thus far despite winning only once during the season. Then came the Chase and all its tweaks to try and spice up the battle for the title and reward those doing the winning. Johnson is proof that the system has worked to that extent, as no other driver has won more races than him in the play-offs, yet never has he wrapped up the championship before the season finale.
Now some wonder whether the Chase needs a few changes in order to shake up the Johnson regime and we may well see some down the line. However the current champions have proved to be able to do anything they set out to achieve, so don't bet on the streak coming to an end just yet.