Jimmie Johnson might not be ready to admit it yet, but he is becoming one of NASCAR's all-time greats.
He's been telling the media at Miami-Homestead Speedway all weekend that it isn't up to him to compare himself to racing legends like Cale Yarborough. But after winning his third straight championship on Sunday, the numbers speak for themselves.
"In my eyes, he's the best there's ever been," his crew chief Chad Knaus said. "With the competition level the way it is today and what you have to do day in and day out without any time off. In my mind, he's the best."
Johnson joins Yarborough as the only driver to win three consecutive titles and became the eighth driver in NASCAR history to win three or more championships. Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. each won seven championships while Jeff Gordon, the co-owner of Johnson's team, has four. Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson and Lee Petty are also three-time champions.
"It's just unbelievable," Johnson said. "I haven't had a chance to really let it sink in. I don't have words to express how grateful I am to work with this race team. I never thought I'd be in this position. Those are names that I worshiped when I was a kid and looked up to and had the pleasure of being around them and meeting them. I'm just kind of at a loss for words. It's such a special day and I'm really proud of this team."
Johnson came into Sunday's race with a 141 point lead over Carl Edwards, the only other driver in the Chase for the Championship that had a possibility of catching him. Johnson needed a 36th place finish on Sunday to clinch the title even with Edwards winning the race and leading the most laps. He finished 15th and claimed his third straight championship.
"What a special year," Johnson said. "I am so proud of this race team. We got off to a slow start and we really worked hard to get back in championship form. This is just the ultimate reward. We worked so hard to put ourselves in this position."
Edwards became the first driver ever to finish second in both of NASCAR's top tiers. He staged an exciting rally over the final weeks of the Nationwide Series, including a win in the season finale on Saturday, but finished 21 points behind Clint Bowyer for the title. Then he found victory lane again on Sunday but missed the title by 69 points.
"It's a good year," Edwards said. "Second in both is an accomplishment and it's great but we hope next year will be a bit better. Second in both series is not first, but it's definitely not something to be ashamed of. I'm proud of what we did this year."
Johnson started the season with a 27th place finish in the Daytona 500 but rallied with a second place finish the following week in California. By the midway point of the year, the team was on a roll and peeled off three wins in the seven races before the Chase started in September.
Johnson came into the Chase in third place behind Edwards and Kyle Busch, who won a series-high eight races in the first 26-race segment. He finished second at Loudon in the first race of the playoff and took the points lead when he won at Kansas in Race 3. He also won at Martinsville and last week in Phoenix.
Gordon said that he was most impressed by his teammates' ability to recover from some dips during the season and get back into championship form when it matter most.
"I saw him struggle for the first time," Gordon said. "Last year, we were just the dominant cars all season long and it really just came down to out-performing one another and they out-performed us and that was impressive to me. Where this season, they really had to get it turned around and they weren't just off a little, they were off a lot at times, like we were, and boom, they got it turned around."
Johnson's numbers are already becoming legendary. In his seven seasons in NASCAR's top division, the 33-year-old from El Cajon, CA has finished in the top five in the championship standings every year. He won three races and finished fifth as a rookie in 2002 before a pair of second place finishes in 2003 and 2004. He dipped back down to fifth in 2005 before winning his first of three championships in 2006.
No other team has won more than the 40 races Johnson has won since 2002.
"You know the 48 team has been together since 2002 and I think that has been what has helped us," Knaus said. "We've learned each other's face and learned each other's emotions and how to handle each other and everybody has raised each other's levels so high that it's a great experience."