Some were worried that Jimmie Johnson hadn't won a race yet in 2014. On Sunday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, he eased any doubts by winning the longest race in NASCAR, the Coca-Cola 600.
The six-time Sprint Cup champion won the pole Thursday with a speed of 194.911 miles per hour and then led Sunday for a race-high 164 laps. At the end, he was able to pass Matt Kenseth with eight laps to go and hold off Kevin Harvick to seal the 400-lap race win by 1.272 seconds.
It was certainly a statement victory.
As the season passed by, there had been a lot of chatter on Johnson. With 66 Sprint Cup wins under his belt, it had been 11 years since the 38-year-old went this long at the start of a season without a win.
Still, the Hendrick Motorsports driver repeatedly insisted he wasn't concerned about his so-called drought. He did, however, admit to feeling some relief that it was over.
After the race, Johnson spoke with reporters about the win:
Absolutely, it's a relief. It's great to win. I promise you, all the hype and all the concern, that was elsewhere. We've had some bad races, I'm not going to lie, but tonight we had a great racecar.
They know we're awake. And winning, it doesn't matter who you are. The 4 (Harvick) has been able to go out there and dominate, but now that we've got one, we're right there.
This was the perfect place for Johnson to get into gear. Though he hadn't won in Charlotte since 2009, this was his seventh Sprint Cup Series win at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and his fourth time taking the Coca-Cola 600.
That's why he looked right at home driving up to Victory Lane.
By his lofty standards, it has been an inconsistent season for the No. 48. Before this race, he was seventh in the standings, with three top-five finishes and six top-10s. That's far from poor, but as noted by The Associated Press (h/t ESPN), he also had a few races that he called "pathetic."
Johnson's winless 2014 was put under a microscope due to the massive amounts of success he has had. He's won the Sprint Cup championship in six of the last eight years and is the defending champion.
Simply put, he's been the most dominant racer in NASCAR over the last decade.
This year, new restrictions made the cars tighter, and Johnson told reporters he has had a tough time adjusting to the turns in traffic. With the new qualifying rules for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Johnson needed to either win an event or qualify by points to be assured a spot.
So as the races went by, the whispers started to get louder. After all, Johnson's never missed the Chase. The playoff just wouldn't be the same without him.
Of course, not everyone was taking the concern over Johnson's winless streak seriously. Jeff Gluck of USA Today talked with Johnson's NASCAR competitors before the Coca-Cola 600 to put the drought in perspective. It's safe to say they knew it was just a matter of time.
The last time Jimmie Johnson won a NASCAR race, the Miami Heat were reigning NBA champions, Barack Obama was president and the national average gasoline price was around $3.50 a gallon.
The date? Nov. 3, 2013 — a whopping 13 races ago. Such a long time has passed, one can't help but wonder if the Johnson dynasty is over after six championships.
"He's probably washed up," Matt Kenseth said with a laugh. "I think he's done."
"I don't feel bad for him," Carl Edwards said, chuckling.
"That's like a 72-race slump, almost, for him," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said with a wry smile.
During the post-race press conference, Johnson professed his gratitude "to all the men and women who served our country."
Perspective helped Johnson realize there were much bigger worries in life than a 13-race drought in a NASCAR season, but that doesn't mean he wasn't thrilled to get back to his winning ways moving forward.
Now the doubts are officially gone and Johnson is headed to another track that he loves, the Dover International Speedway. All that's left for him to do is drive.
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