Johnson finally gets his hands on the Cup

The Year In Sports
Top stories of 2006 from the Times' staff.
Times Staff Writer

Jimmie Johnson finally closed the deal -- the hard way.

After having the Nextel Cup elude his grasp for four consecutive years, Johnson won stock car racing’s biggest title Sunday -- and its $6.2-million prize -- by overcoming two early setbacks and finishing ninth at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The El Cajon, Calif., native needed to finish only 12th or better in the Ford 400 to win his first championship. He started with a 63-point lead over Matt Kenseth in the final event of NASCAR’s 10-race Chase for the Cup and the 36-race season.

“This is just the most amazing day of my life,” an emotional Johnson, 31, said after hoisting the Nextel Cup in front of the main grandstands.

It also was an emotional day for Greg Biffle, who won the Homestead race for the third straight year in a Roush Racing Ford after learning this month that his father was ill.

The victory was a positive end to an otherwise forgettable year for Biffle, a Kenseth teammate who had only one previous victory this year and failed to qualify for the 10-driver Chase.

“Congratulations to Jimmie Johnson,” said Biffle, runner-up in the Chase last year to Tony Stewart. “Hopefully we’ll be in that position next year.”

Martin Truex Jr. was second, the best finish in his first full year in the Cup series for the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team.

After Johnson took the checkered flag and slowed for his cool-down lap, his teammate Jeff Gordon and some other drivers affectionately bumped the side of his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet in congratulations.

With the Cup now safely in hand, Johnson said he felt the growing pressure as race day neared.

“It started building up over the last couple of weeks,” Johnson said. “You get so caught up in worrying about things you can’t control.”

But, he said, “I felt good when I got in the race car, and was calm and at peace.”

It was the sixth championship for Johnson’s team owner, Rick Hendrick, who won four with Gordon and one with Terry Labonte.

“This one feels especially good, because of how close [to the title] Chad and Jimmie have been the last couple of years,” Hendrick said.

Besides Kenseth, the only other Chase drivers who had mathematical chances to win the Cup were Kevin Harvick and rookie Denny Hamlin, who were 90 points behind, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was 115 points behind.

Hamlin, Harvick and Kenseth ran solid, if fruitless, races Sunday and all finished in the top 10.

Earnhardt was the class of the field midway through the race, which started on a clear, breezy late afternoon. But as night fell and the race progressed under the lights, Earnhardt’s car faded. He also skimmed the wall and finished 19th.

The result: Kenseth finished second in the Chase, 56 points behind Johnson, followed by Hamlin, Harvick and Earnhardt.

“I’m happy to finish second to Jimmie,” Kenseth said. “It’s been a great season.”

The other five Chase drivers already had been eliminated: Gordon, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch.

It appeared Johnson might be in trouble early in the race because “there was just a lot of crazy stuff going on,” he said.

Indeed, only 15 laps into the 267-lap race, Kurt Busch hit the wall and a piece of his debris hit Johnson’s car, poking a fist-size hole in its front grill. Johnson fell to 39th after getting repairs -- and briefly trailed Kenseth in points -- but then steadily climbed back through the field.

It was a scenario eerily similar to last year’s final race, when a blown tire sent Johnson into the wall and left him with a 40th-place finish that ruined his title hopes.

This time, though, Johnson repeated the type of comeback he mounted in the Brickyard race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August.

Johnson suffered a blown tire early in that race too, but methodically rose through the field to win the race.

Johnson had to overcome another problem Sunday. While pitting on Lap 116, he was about to leave when his crew saw a lug nut fall off his left front wheel. Johnson abruptly stopped and the nut was tightened, dropping him to 16th.

So Johnson clawed back into the top 10 again, then settled in and drove a conservative race to secure the title.

Johnson’s championship also was redemption for Chad Knaus, considered one of the most gifted and aggressive crew chiefs in the business.

NASCAR banished Knaus from the season’s first four races -- starting with the Daytona 500, its most celebrated event -- for breaking the rules on the aerodynamics of Johnson’s car before qualifying for the 500. Johnson then won the race anyway.

Elsewhere in the field Sunday, Juan Pablo Montoya finished 34th in his Nextel Cup debut after a scary crash.

The former Formula One driver started 29th for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates and was running 22nd when his Dodge slammed into the wall with 16 laps remaining and burst into flames.

Montoya quickly climbed out and was not injured, but the race was stopped for eight minutes under a red flag until the wreckage could be cleared.

“We’ve proved we can run up there” in the Cup series, Montoya said, but added that “it’s not going to be easy. There are great guys out there, great drivers.”

David Gilliland of Riverside, a rookie who started ninth for Robert Yates Racing, ran in the top five for the first half and was headed to his best finish yet. But he hit the wall on Lap 173 and finished 33rd, several laps down.

Another Californian, Robby Gordon of Orange, spun and hit the wall on Lap 188 after starting 35th and finished 40th.