Johnson plays it smart to earn second championship with ease

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- No flat tires. No blown engines. No pit-road mistakes. No crashes that got in his way.

The drama was missing. Exactly the way Jimmie Johnson wanted it.

Johnson had a simple Sunday drive to his second consecutive Nextel Cup championship. The fears over some unforeseen trouble or a disastrous moment of fate in the Ford 400 never materialized.

Seventh place was good enough for the man in the No. 48 Chevrolet.

Johnson's fate was to stand on the podium with the trophy once again at Homestead-Miami Speedway, ending a remarkable season by cruising for 267 laps without a problem.

"Thank you boys," Johnson said on his radio when the race ended. "We're gonna tear it up tonight."

Johnson didn't tear it up on the track, but did he what he had to do; keeping his nose clean on the No. 48 Chevrolet and making sure Jeff Gordon never had a chance to catch him for the title.

The only thing Johnson didn't do was win the race. His victory streak ended at four in a row. Sunday was only the second time in the last eight races he didn't post a top-3 showing.

But this was big-picture night, playing it smart to guarantee another crown.

"There was little bit more in it," Johnson said about his car. "But I don't think I had enough to win the race tonight. It was a long night, but compared to last year, it went so much smoother for me. I had the right frame of mind and everything came together."

Matt Kenseth, the only driver able to challenge Johnson over the last month, finally finished on top with his first victory on the 1.5-mile Homestead oval.

It was the fifth consecutive top-5 for Kenseth and the No. 17 Ford crew, but not near enough to catch Johnson.

"I knew one of these years somebody would put it all together and have 10 perfect [Chase] races," said Robbie Reiser, who won his last race as Kenseth's crew chief before moving into a management role at Roush Fenway Racing. "Hopefully they won't keep that up."

Gordon hopes the same thing. He had another strong run and finished fourth, but fell 77 points short of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

Johnson only needed an 18th-place finish to clinch the title. At no point Sunday was he far enough back to give Gordon any realistic hope of catching him. Gordon's No. 24 Chevy never got out of Johnson's sight.

"That was our goal," said Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief. "We played it conservative at the end, just doing what they did and staying close to them. I just wish we had the championship sewed up earlier so we could have been more aggressive and gone for the win."

Johnson was able to shift into safe mode because he didn't play it safe down the stretch during the Chase. He went for it, taking chances to win races.

"I knew who I was racing against,'' Johnson said. "I had to stand on if I was going to beat Jeff Gordon. We just got on a tear that was unbelievable.

"In those closing laps at Texas and Phoenix, I wanted every point I could get. I thought I was racing within my means. Looking back at those tapes, maybe I was a little outside the box, but I thought it was the right thing to do."

That aggressive approach was the difference in the Chase between Johnson and Gordon, good friends whose cars are built by the same people at the Hendrick complex.

"I can't say thanks enough to Jeff," Johnson said. "He's helped me so much over the years. He's just an awesome guy."

Johnson has contended for the championship in each of the last five seasons. But he became a more patient racer last season, learning to save the best for the final laps at each event.

No driver since David Pearson has done it better, getting up on the wheel and smelling the checkered flag when the finish is near.

Jimmie Johnson

I knew who I was racing against. I had to stand on if I was going to beat Jeff Gordon. We just got on a tear that was unbelievable.

-- Jimmie Johnson

It also helps to have a crew chief like Knaus, who makes the car better as the race progresses, but other crew chiefs also have that skill.

So what is it that makes the 48 team so good when a victory and a championship are on the line?

"I'm not really sure and we don't really care, either," Johnson said. "We stayed focused on the right things and got the job done."

The emotions spilled over when the race ended. Johnson's wife Chandra covered her face as she broke into tears. Knaus gave her a hug on the pit box before heading down pit road for a series of hugs from Gordon's crew.

"It's a dream come true for all us of at Hendrick Motorsports," Knaus said. "But I can't say enough about Jimmie. He's been the best all year long."

Johnson is the champion again because the played the system perfectly, winning six races to start the playoff on top and four more down the stretch to finish on top.

"It still hasn't hit me yet," he said. "I'm beside myself. It's a great day and great feeling. I think we're really just hitting our stride. We have a lot of great years ahead of us."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.