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6-time champion Johnson bookends eventful NASCAR season

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Jared C. Tilton - Getty Images
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet, celebrates in Champions Victory Lane after winning the series championship following the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 17, 2013 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. There was the debut of a new car.

There was a cheating scandal that produced the unprecedented late addition of a championship contender.

And there were history-making penalties, crew members and drivers arrested and suspended and even a rookie romance.

The 2013 NASCAR season was filled with a little bit of everything, but when it came to the competition side, it was book-ended by a familiar face, perhaps the true “Face of NASCAR.”

Jimmie Johnson began the year capturing his second Daytona 500 and ended it Sunday night celebrating his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship.

The 38-year-old native of El Cajon, Calif., has left an indelible mark on NASCAR racing and shows no signs of lessening his hold on success anytime soon.

After all, as fellow competitor Denny Hamlin put it Sunday night, the sport is now immersed in the “Jimmie Johnson Era.”

It will be a difficult one to replicate.

“I think being out there and racing with him, I can say that I think he’s the best that there ever was,” Hamlin said of Johnson. “He’s racing against competition that is tougher than this sport’s ever seen.

“The guy’s just good. The championships that he didn’t win are because he had some bad luck here and there, or maybe they beat themselves, something like that.

“Here lately, it just hasn’t happened that way.”

As the celebratory burnout dust settled at Homestead-Miami Speedway late Sunday, Johnson’s tale of the tape for the 2013 season was as impressive as ever.

He won the second-most races (six) of any driver this season – the eighth time in his 12 full seasons he’s won five or more; he tied for the most top-fives (16) and had the most top-10 finishes (24) of the year. Johnson also won three poles, while not generally known as a great qualifier.

Johnson amassed nearly $9 million in race winnings this season.

“I am at a loss for words, but I am so proud, and so thankful for this opportunity at Hendrick Motorsports,” Johnson said. “I’m thankful that Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick gave me this opportunity back in 2002.

“This sport is about people, and our people at Hendrick Motorsports, especially on this No. 48 car rose up and got the job done. I am so thankful to be able to drive for this race team, and so honored and so excited to have a six-pack.”

That’s not all.

Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, offered an ominous warning to those who think Johnson or the No. 48 are in any way ready to lift off the throttle.

“We’ve led a bunch of laps, won a bunch of races. We’ve taken a group of new individuals, new engineers, mechanics, pit crew members, they’ve all evolved into a pretty spectacular team,” Knaus said.

“I don’t think we’re even close to the potential of the team yet. That’s exciting for me.”

Exciting for him, perhaps a difficult concept to grasp for fellow competitors and their fans.

In any event, Johnson and Knaus show no signs of slowing down and team owner Rick Hendrick sees no reason the successful combination won’t continue well into the future.

“They have tremendous respect for each other. The chemistry is the best it’s ever been,” Hendrick said of Johnson and Knaus.

“I think they can see the success where they are right now, what they’re capable of doing. I don’t think they’ll let anything come between that.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.
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