Johnson’s finish is good enough for the championship

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 21, 2006

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – So maybe it wasn’t quite as pretty as Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus would have liked. But then their four title challengers didn’t offer as much pressure as they should have in such a title showdown.

And car owner Rick Hendrick thus wound up with yet another NASCAR championship Sunday.

Greg Biffle beat Martin Truex to win the race, his first win since May at Darlington,the win was Biffle’s third straight at Homestead-Miami Speedway.


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But the heart of the drama was Johnson in his bid for the Nextel Cup title.

Johnson came into the race with a 63-point lead over Matt Kenseth, and the icy-cool, quick-thinking Californian this time finally finished it off, winning by 56 points, after missing the title in each of his first four seasons on the stock-car tour.

&uot;It’s just such a long day to get here,&uot; a weary Johnson said. &uot;There were times when we were down-and-out in the back, and had to come back through.

&uot;It may take a while to sink in. I knew we had a great team, I knew all along we could do it, we just had some bad luck at the start of the chase. And then we got some momentum, and some guys had some bad luck, to let us get back into it.&uot;

Johnson, 31, is NASCAR’s seventh different Cup champion in the last eight years. He won five times this season, at Daytona, Las Vegas, Talladega, Indianapolis and Martinsville.

Rookie Denny Hamlin, running third after fighting his way from a 33rd starting spot, finished third in the standings, 68 points behind Johnson. &uot;Jimmie and those guys didn’t let anybody fluster them, they did what they had to do,&uot; Hamlin said.

Kevin Harvick wound up fifth in the race and fourth in the standings, 78 points down.

&uot;There’s no disappointment here,&uot; Harvick said. &uot;We all knew coming in that unless Jimmie beat himself we were all on the outside looking in&uot;.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran a dismal 19th and wound up fifth in the standings, 147 points down. &uot;We had a really good car when the sun was out, but when the sun went down we had problems,&uot; Earnhardt said. &uot;My guys might be down about things and bummed out tonight, but they’ve got a lot to be proud about this year. And we’ve got a lot to look forward to.&uot;

Knaus seemed relieved at the end, after his first Cup title: &uot;This team has really come into its own the last year. We’ve had to battle back from a lot of weird stuff. I’m more happy for my guys than for myself.

&uot;There’s never been a team to come into this division with as much pressure on it as this team. When we came in here in 2002, we had Jeff Gordon’s championship-winning racecars, so Jimmie and I and the team all had to step up. And to win the championship in 2006 is just incredible.&uot;

Kenseth too was glad it was all finally over. &uot;It’s been one of our best seasons ever, the most consistent,&uot; Kenseth said. &uot;I wish we could have put some of our stronger performances in the chase. But looking over the whole year and we’ve had the fastest cars we’ve ever had.&uot;

&uot;The last few weeks have been tough, because the performance in the car hasn’t been there, and that’s my responsibility,&uot; Robbie Reiser, Kenseth’s crew chief, said. &uot;But we’ll be back next year.&uot;

The Daytona 500 in only 89 days away.

The championship was Hendrick’s first since 2001. Before the race Hendrick tried to take some of the edge off Johnson’s nervousness by pointing out that there are more important things in life, as Hendrick well knows, because it was exactly 10 years ago on Nov. 18th that he was diagnosed with leukemia.