HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Jimmie Johnson steered his No. 48 Chevrolet Monte Carlo off the racetrack and into its garage stall. With a mangled and badly crushed car, Johnson's day was likely over. It was more clear that his hopes for that elusive first Nextel Cup title were halted.
Johnson exited his car and stared at the wreckage. But it was more like he was staring past it. He walked around the front of his rig and stared at the faces of his crew. Again, it was more like he was staring past them. Flushed and seemingly numb, Johnson's appearance was unlike any other time we've seen him during his four-year Cup career.
The Hendrick Motorsports racer has contended for three Cup titles in the past, finishing runner-up in his last two attempts. But those losses didn't hurt like this one. Those attempts were more for show; Johnson never believed it was meant to be back then. This time was different. This time, he couldn't hide the pain.
"I lived my whole life for this and to end up, you know, blowing a tire and being out," he said.
" It's sad. It's disappointing. You work a long time all season long to get this championship and we've been in this position since this team was born. Since 2002 we've battled for the championship."
In his first season racing Cup full time, Johnson finished fifth as Tony Stewart went on to claim the big trophy. The next two years, Johnson was the runner-up to the champion. For two years he was the bridesmaid, never the lucky one who, for better or worse and richer or poorer, lay claim to beating the best of the best on stock-car racing's grandest stage.
But in the past, it didn't hurt to lose like it did on Sunday night.
In 2003, Johnson finished runner-up to Matt Kenseth. But that was pre-Chase format and Kenseth had built up a seemingly insurmountable points lead by the time the season finale arrived. He ended up beating Johnson by 90 points -- and it was only that close because Kenseth had a mechanical failure and finished last at Homestead.
"Matt had it looked up at Rockingham [N.C.]," Johnson said, referring to the 200-plus points lead Kenseth owned after the 35th race of the year.
Even last season's finish, though bitter, was not as piercing. Sure, Johnson was closer to the championship last year. He entered the finale here at Homestead just 18 points behind Kurt Busch. Shortly after midway through the race, after Busch had saved potential disaster and maintained a consistent car, Johnson admits that he knew it was not meant to be.
"I said to myself, last year, that you've got to lose one before you win one," Johnson said. "Last year I left Homestead saying, 'This is the one I needed to lose before I win.' "
That was his reaction, surprisingly composed, after losing the title by eight ticks. That was his reaction, surprisingly rational, after winning four of the last six races and almost watching Busch wreck in the finale and hand Johnson the title.
"I truly believe that leaving here last year after watching Kurt have his problem -- the wheel fall off the right front and bringing out the caution -- if he would have been over a few more inches and hit the end of the wall, it would have been a different story," Johnson said. "If we would have been a few more laps then there wouldn't have been a caution, he would have gone down two or three laps. It's a tough sport, no doubt about it, and there's no guarantees.
"That's why I love the sport and why I wake up every morning and work so hard, because we've got to fight for every inch, and hopefully one of these days I will be a champion."
That was Johnson's attitude as he sat poolside at a Miami hotel days before coming back to the racetrack where he'd finished just short of his goal the past two years. He was down 52 points and needed Stewart to have the kind of day Stewart ended up having (15th place). Problem is, Johnson needed to win the race to capitilize on Stewart's mediocrity.
Instead, on lap 126, he came around the bend of the backstretch into Turn 3 and blew a tire, which sent him into the wall and out of the race.
"I'm not really sure what happened or why," Johnson said afterward. " When I took off on that restart, I started going backwards. Something was up. We were about three seconds off the pace on that restart and had just put new tires on. Then I was coming down the backstretch going into Turn 3 and the right rear just exploded and around I went.
"It just wasn't meant to be, I guess."
The dejection was evident as, one by one, his crewmen came and put a hand on his shoulder or gave him a pat on the back. Johnson grimaced, never looking anyone in particular in the eye.
"I feel terrible for all the guys at Lowe's and Hendrick Motorsports," he said. "I'm proud of everyone. They put up a storng fight. But that's big-time auto racing. Stuff happens."
Johnson admits that he worries about losing these close title bouts. After all, the law of racing is clear on this point: There are only so many years a team can stay on top. Johnson said he's starting to feel a little rushed to get a championship while his team is at its height.
But Stewart said Johnson has nothing to worry about. Watching the No. 48 team over the years, Stewart says the reason why it's so good is because of talent and hard work. As long as that doesn't change, neither should Johnson's status as ever the contender.
"You feel bad for him," Stewart said coming into the weekend, contemplating winning his second title and shutting out Johnson yet again. "But at the same time, if that's what happens, it's pretty flattering that he's been in that top seat for the past three years and that's pretty impressive."
Johnson said he felt like his team was impressive in 2005. Unlike last season, when the team fell off the pace when the Chase began and needed those four late-season wins to get back into contention, this season he believed the team was solid from race 1 through race 36.
That heals the hurt some.
"I look back at the season and we did everything we could," Johnson said. "I'm disappointed, but very proud of my team and everybody involved. It's just too bad. We'll be back next year."
More than likely in contention.
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.