Jimmie Johnson had an exceptional year on his way to a record-setting fourth consecutive Sprint Cup championship. Here are the five key races that led to the 48 team’s title.

1. Bristol, March 22. The spring race at Thunder Valley ended with Johnson scoring his first top-five of the year. Following two top-10s in the first four races, Bristol moved Johnson from 13th to ninth in the standings. Or more importantly, it moved him into the top 12. He never dropped below the Chase cutoff the rest of the year.

2. Darlington, May 9. Johnson crashed his primary car during qualifying for the Southern 500. The strength and depth of Hendrick Motorsports was demonstrated when the 48 team started its backup Chevy 42nd and finished second. All with no practice laps on the spare entry. A top-five points spot was secured for the rest of the year.

3. Pocono, August 3. The box score shows the 48 crossing the checkered flag 13th. Box scores do not show the entire story. The Chad Knaus-led crew fought an engine problem during the rain-delayed Monday afternoon contest. Spark plugs, wires and other ignition parts were changed until the car was running again at full power. Using NASCAR’s free-pass rule, Johnson made up three lost laps and finished on the lead lap. A lesser outfit would have finished outside the top 30.

4. Fontana, October 11. This victory in California’s first Chase race launched Johnson into the points lead for the first and only time in 2009. When it counted most, the El Cajon, Calif., native showed he knows how to race under the points system in place.

5. Phoenix, November 15. One week after his disastrous finish in Texas, people in the garage area and thousands in the grandstands were looking at Phoenix for another possible Johnson stumble to set up a close and exciting Miami showdown. Johnson responded by dominating and winning his seventh race of the season. This left Mark Martin with a slim mathematical chance of taking the title. And it gave Johnson the comfortable cushion he needed for a Homestead clincher.

(Patrick Reynolds is a professional racing mechanic who has worked for several NASCAR teams.)

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