The road to five

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Although Jimmie Johnson started with a 15-point deficit at Sunday's season finale, he made his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup Series championship look easy thanks to a second-place finish that gave him a 39-point victory over Denny Hamlin.

Jimmie Johnson finished second at the Ford 400 and overtook Denny Hamlin in points to clinch his fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.   NASCAR
NASCAR
Jimmie Johnson finished second at the Ford 400 and overtook Denny Hamlin in points to clinch his fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

There were five defining moments in this year's playoffs for Johnson. Without any one of these turning points, Johnson's streak might have stopped.

1. Flawless in finale

Denny Hamlin spun through the infield on the 24th lap; Kevin Harvick got a speeding penalty on pit road. While two of the three contenders for the championship were showing signs of pressure, Johnson was nearly flawless.

He was relentless in keeping Hamlin and Harvick in his rear view mirror.

"This one's important because we had to come from behind to do it," Johnson said. "And it kept the record going. When you set a record, you love to continue that. We did everything we could all year long and we had two teams right on our heels.

"What I'm proud of is the heart it took to win this. I'm proud of how we dug in and ... we've had the highs and lows of the Chase. There's a different feeling about this one."

2. Recovery at Dover

Johnson started the Chase with a 24th-place finish at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, prompting many to believe he wasn't as formidable as in the past.

A week later, he won at the Dover International Speedway. Johnson won the pole, led the most laps and put an end to any suggestion he wasn't up for challenge.

"This team never quits; it never stops," he said then. "We can't get beat."

3. Crew swap pivotal

When Johnson's pit crew struggled at Texas Motor Speedway, crew chief Chad Knaus decided to park them in favor of Jeff Gordon's crew. Gordon's team performed the last four pit stops in that race to get Johnson a ninth-place finish.

A day later, Hendrick Motorsports made the swap permanent.

While others, especially Hamlin's crew chief Mike Ford, said it proved Johnson's team was buckling under the pressure, Knaus used it as a rallying point.

"We did not win this championship because we changed pit crews," Knaus said. "We won this championship because we're a great team."

4. Fast on Friday

Johnson's most-significant volley at Homestead came Friday during pole qualifying. He was sixth-fastest in time trials, while Harvick (28th) and Hamlin (37th) struggled.

That gave Johnson a huge cushion before the race started and forced the other two to play catch-up during the main event.

5. Phoenix was a gas

Johnson and Knaus have a reputation for being too calculating, but they proved to be pretty good gamblers at the Phoenix International Raceway.

Hamlin dominated the race, but he had to stop for gas with 12 laps to go.

Knaus decided early in the final run to stretch his fuel mileage. Johnson saved enough gas by coasting into the corners and slowly accelerating down the straightaways to skip the final stop and finish fifth.

By stopping, Hamlin gave away what would have been an 86-point lead heading into Homestead. He finished 12th and the lead shrunk to 15 points.

"We did a good job on closing the gap and putting all that pressure on the 11 (Hamlin)," Johnson said after that race. "I know what my mind-set is and I hope the pressure of us being on his (Hamlin) heels really works on his mind throughout the course of the week, he and his crew."


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