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‘This is everything I’ve ever wanted to be’

Not easy, but Johnson takes Nextel title

McClatchy Newspapers

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — It wasn’t easy for Jimmie Johnson on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but that’s really nothing new.

"Things never go smoothly for us," the 2006 Nextel Cup champion said after he had a hole knocked in the nose of his Chevrolet early and spent the rest of the day dodging wrecks in a Ford 400 won, for a third straight year, by Greg Biffle.

"That just knocked the edge off," Johnson said of a Lap 9 incident in which a piece of debris from Kurt Busch’s wrecking car flew into the grille of his No. 48 Chevrolet. "We just went back at it. I’m better when I am passing cars anyway."

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Johnson was 40th on the restart after that incident, but by Lap 80 he was back up into the top 10 and on his way to a solid ninth-place finish that was more than enough to give him his first career championship in NASCAR top division.

"It’s going to take a while for this to sink in," said Johnson, who finished the year 56 points ahead of Matt Kenseth in the standings to earn a $6.2 million prize for being the sport’s champion.

"This is everything I’ve ever wanted to be — a champion."

Johnson had won four championships in his racing career, beginning with a motorcycle title when he was just 8 years old. His other three titles, though, had all come before he crossed over from off-road style racing into stock cars.

After progressing through the American Speed Association ranks, Johnson was driving in the NASCAR Busch Series when he decided to ask Jeff Gordon for advice on what opportunities he should look at for a career in Nextel Cup.

As it turned out, Gordon and car owner Rick Hendrick had noticed Johnson’s driving and had actually already talked about giving the driver from California a shot. That led to the formation of the No. 48 at Hendrick Motorsports, with crew chief Chad Knaus at the helm, and in his first four seasons Johnson finished fifth or better in the final standings.

He was runner-up, by just eight points, to Busch two seasons ago and last year came to the finale second in the standings only to crash and fade to fifth.

This year, a string of five-straight finishes of second or better leading up to the season’s final week had him out front by 63 points over Kenseth and in need of only a solid run here to fulfill what had seemed to be his team’s championship destiny.

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Mission accomplished.

"There were times when we’ve been down and out," said Johnson, whose 23 race victories in the past five season is the most of any driver in that span, ahead of 17 each for Gordon and 2005 Cup champion Tony Stewart.

"I think we knew in our hearts we could do it all along."

Johnson won five races this year, including the Daytona 500 and the Allstate 400 at Indianapolis, and Sunday’s ninth-place finish was his circuit-best 24th top-10 of the season.

But it wasn’t all peaches and cream.

Knaus was suspended for the season’s first four races after NASCAR found a rules violation on the No. 48 after Daytona 500 qualifying.

The team won at Daytona and two races later at Las Vegas, and was second in the standings when the Chase began 10 races ago. But Johnson finished 39th in the Chase opener at New Hampshire and, after being wrecked on the final lap at Talladega he was in eighth place, 156 points back.

From that point on, however, Johnson took command of the Chase.

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"I just think we’ve become a stronger, smarter race team," Johnson said.

"We’ve made mistakes together and won races together, and now we’ve won a championship together. This is the most amazing day of my life."

It’s the sixth championship for Rick Hendrick, who is the first NASCAR car owner to have three different drivers win titles in his cars. Gordon is a four-time champion and Terry Labonte also won a championship for Hendrick.

"It’s great to see Jimmie come through," Hendrick said. "These guys have been so close, they’ve been been a great combination. They’ve worked hard and been good all year. The whole organization has worked so hard, and we’re proud of everyone."

Biffle, who finished second to Stewart in last year’s standings after also winning the finale, took the lead for the first time Sunday on Lap 214 and then came off pit road with about 20 laps to go behind only J.J. Yeley, who had stayed out on a caution.

After a red flag following a fiery wreck involving Juan Montoya’s car on the first attempted restart, Biffle shot past Yeley going through turns 1 and 2 and was gone. He pulled away easily on a green-white-checkered finish, holding off a late surge into second by rookie Martin Truex Jr.

Denny Hamlin, this season’s breakout star, finished third and moved up to third in the final standings, 68 points behind the winner. Kevin Harvick, who came into the final race tied with Hamlin in the standings, finished fifth on the day and fourth for the season, 78 points behind Johnson and 69 points ahead of fifth-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., who faded to 19th by the end of Sunday’s race.

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