Johnson claims back-to-back Cup championships

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

Totally calm and cool, Jimmie Johnson left the pre-race drivers' meeting Sunday afternoon flashing the peace sign at people wishing him luck.

Two fingers.

Two consecutive championships.

Johnson became the first driver to win consecutive championships since Jeff Gordon in 1997 and '98, wrapping up the title by finishing a trouble-free seventh in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Matt Kenseth won the race. (read more)

When it was over, he and crew chief Chad Knaus were already thinking about a third.

"We're just really hitting our stride," Johnson said. "I think that we have a lot of good years ahead of us and we'll be fighting for more championships and certainly winning more races as the years go by, and hopefully be a three-time champion in the near future."

This Sunday drive was a coronation, and Johnson knew it. Deep down, so did everyone else, too. NASCAR is changing eras next season, but the Johnson era atop the sport is just getting started.

Team owner Rick Hendrick was along for the ride when Gordon ruled the sport, and said it's clear this is Johnson's time now.

"Jimmie's just getting better and better, phenomenal," Hendrick said. "He's as determined as anybody I've ever seen sit down in a racecar. I don't see anything that's going to slow Jimmie down. I hope that we can keep it together. We can do some phenomenal things in the future.

"Can we get 10, guys?" Hendrick asked, looking at Johnson and Knaus. "OK, we're going to get 10."

Johnson came into the event with a cushy 86-point lead over Gordon, his friend, mentor and teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. Although Johnson only needed to finish 18th or better, he refused to play it safe and Knaus gave him a pole-winning car.

Johnson led the first lap to earn a quick five-point bonus, then settled in for the 400-mile ride into the record books. At a time when no single team is supposed to dominate, the No. 48 crew did just that in leading Johnson to 10 victories and a stout 5.0 average finish during the Chase.

It put it out of reach for Gordon, who was hoping to add a fifth Cup title to his dream season. He became a father in June, won six races and his fourth-place finish Sunday was his NASCAR-record 30th top-10 finish of the year.

"It's an awesome year, but you know what? We wanted to win a championship and we got beat," said Gordon, who pulled alongside Johnson for a celebratory nudge and pumped his fist in excitement during Johnson's burnout.

Gordon was also terrific in the Chase, winning twice and averaging a 5.1 finish. But it wasn't enough against Johnson, his hand-picked teammate who wound up surpassing him as the sport's dominant driver.

Johnson became the first driver since Gordon to win double-digit races, four in a row and the consecutive titles. His 77-point victory margin was the largest in the four years of the Chase.

"I'll be honest, I really thought that as aggressive as they were being, it was going to bite them," Gordon said. "I guess I was just a little bit too confident in the old consistency thing. ... Man, if they didn't pull it off. That's how good they are."

It was a far different approach from last year, when Johnson fretted over everything -- especially the outcome. He had lost the championship in 2004 and 2005, and the stress of it made him unable to relax.

"Losing those two championships taught us a lot. It was painful," Johnson said. "And there were points there where we went back, looked at it and tried to adjust. And it's led to these two championships."

Finally winning last year chilled him out, and the California kid had a "no worries" attitude during the entire Chase. He packed a quick trip to Mexico into his schedule two weeks ago, spent time hanging out in New York City and even made plans for his championship party a week in advance.

"After what I experienced last season and coming into this season, and even this night, it just went so much smoother for me," he said. "I was in the right frame of mind, was focused on the right things. I had great support from the crew guys, great support from my loving wife and everything came together. We're rocking."

The attitude was infectious for the entire team.

Before the Super Bowl in South Florida nine months ago, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said he slept for 12 hours the night before the game -- and knew that was a good sign.

Same thing here. This was Johnson's Super Bowl, and his team couldn't have been more relaxed.

Knaus -- the sort of guy who frets over every detail -- went to bed at 9 p.m. Saturday, awoke at 8 a.m. and couldn't have been calmer when he got to the track a couple of hours later.

"I've got the best team and the best driver," Knaus said.

Who can argue? Certainly not NASCAR.

"He is having a run that in the Modern Era is maybe unmatched," NASCAR chairman Brian France said before the race. "He is just at a different level and I think it's hats off to him."

The sport has come a long way from the days when Richard Petty won 27 races in a season, and too many teams are competitive for any one driver to dominate. But Hendrick Motorsports did it, with its four drivers winning 18 of the 36 races and Johnson taking the lion's share while giving HMS its seventh Cup championship.

It came in a season when NASCAR phased in its Car of Tomorrow, a safer, cost-efficient car that was also designed to improve the racing. But teams had to flop back and forth between the current car and the COT, and mastering both programs was a chore.

Sunday's finale was the last race for the current car, as a new era begins next season when NASCAR will use the COT exclusively. The series name also is changing, from Nextel Cup to Sprint Cup.

And the dynamic at Hendrick also will be different, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- NASCAR's most popular driver -- set to replace the temperamental Kyle Busch on the four-car team. The addition will give Hendrick another championship-caliber driver and a colorful personality on a team often criticized for being a bit bland.

It's stretched to Johnson, who despite his success isn't embraced by a fan base that views him as a little too polished and a lot too nice. But he proved he's not perfect last December, falling from the top of a golf cart and breaking his wrist in the process. Embarrassed by the incident and afraid of what it would do to his image, he initially lied about how it happened and was angry when the truth came out.

When it didn't harm him, Johnson realized he doesn't always have to be the consummate corporate poster boy and can show his wild side. He did just that when he crossed the finish line Sunday, immediately radioing to his crew to get ready for the party.

"South Beach, here we come," said Johnson, who promised to "watch the sun come up and smile."


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