News & Media

Last year's contenders on outside looking in

November 19, 2011, David Caraviello,

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- It hit Jimmie Johnson on Thursday, when NASCAR's annual championship contenders press conference took place, and he wasn't a part of it. Although he had been mathematically eliminated from this Sprint Cup title hunt last weekend in Phoenix, it was only upon his arrival in South Florida when Johnson began to realize that his five-year reign atop the sport was ending.

"Looking at those experiences and not necessarily emotional, just thinking about it, like -- wow, it really is over. "


"You want to be relevant when it comes down to the last race and right now there's only two that are relevant. "


So on the same day when Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart -- the only two drivers still eligible for this crown -- were trading playful jabs in a tent full of reporters on Miami Beach, Johnson was shopping with his wife and digesting the fact that someone else would be the champion this year.

"Kind of hit me in the gut a little bit there," Johnson said. "I was even more disappointed to not be there and at least have a shot mathematically."

This trip to Homestead-Miami Speedway brings a changing of the guard to NASCAR's premier division, as Johnson gives way to a successor. The transition promises to be somewhat jarring, given that for five years now it's been Johnson's transporter parked in the first spot in the Sprint Cup garage area, it's been Johnson's No. 48 car leading the field out to practice every week, and it's been Johnson at the head table at the season-ending awards banquet. For Johnson, the end of this unprecedented run brings a little wistfulness for not just his title reign, but also a decade-long span that's as good as anything NASCAR has ever seen.

"There are little things that keep playing through my mind," Johnson said in the track media center. "Last time I was sitting at this table, sitting here on top of the world, with just winning my fifth [title]. Some of those little parts of last year bleeding over into here and looking at those experiences and not necessarily emotional, just thinking about it, like -- wow, it really is over. Disappointed that it is over, but very proud at what this team has done, what we have done over the last really 10 years. The last five, obviously, stand out, but what we have done as a group over the 10-year run so far has been truly amazing."

This weekend, though, Johnson takes a back seat to the duel between Edwards and Stewart. He's not alone -- Denny Hamlin, last year's runner-up, is also a bystander. Last year Hamlin carried the points lead into the last race before Johnson overtook him in the finale. Like his 2010 rival, Hamlin was reminded most of the differences between this year and last when he watched Edwards and Stewart banter on stage earlier this week.

"You look and this time around, I'm not paying nearly as much attention to media and things like that as what I was before," Hamlin said. "I was watching, on [NASCAR.COM], the press conference with those two [Thursday], and it kind of brings up the memories that you had from last year and whatnot. So, yeah, I think it kind of hits home a little bit more this weekend than when you stop being a championship-contender weeks ago. It does. For us, it's obviously a lot more relaxed and whatnot. It kind of drives me to kind of want to get back to that point again. You want to be relevant when it comes down to the last race and right now there's only two that are relevant. For us, for sure when you see all that stuff going on it kind of makes it a little homesick."

Hamlin, though, isn't watching a historic championship run end. As the weekend progressed and Johnson's focus shifted to the race car, things began to feel a little more normal for the outgoing champ. His goal now is to try to win at a track that has so far eluded him, and extend his nine-year run of finishing fifth or better in final points. And the championship is still there, relegated to the history books, but perhaps becoming more appreciated in retrospect.

"I can say that I have been extremely impressed and overwhelmed with the respect that has been paid to our streak," Johnson said. "I don't know where it goes from there, but every access point I have had to see what the fans are thinking and what people are thinking, there has been a lot of respect passed out. I am very thankful for that."