Chase worth wait

Johnson wins NASCAR title after four straight years of near misses

Nascar Nextel Cup

November 20, 2006|By Ed Hinton | Ed Hinton,Orlando Sentinel

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- What Jimmie Johnson won yesterday was the hardest-earned championship in recent, if not all, NASCAR history.

Most teams run at the top of their game for a single season to win the Nextel Cup. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have done it for five.

Previously, "They've really been the best overall group, with how they've performed, for the last four years," said Matt Kenseth, who wound up second to Johnson for the championship by 56 points when yesterday's season-ending Ford 400 was over. "So they deserve it."

Brought to Cup level in 2002 by team co-owners Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Knaus have contended for championships since their outset together.

Given lucrative sponsorship and the best of everything - including mentoring from four-time champion Gordon - they were never really allowed any formative years.

"People have expected a lot from us from the beginning," Johnson said after driving cautiously to a ninth-place finish in a race where he needed only to finish 12th or better, regardless of what Kenseth or the three other contenders left in the Chase for the championship did.

In 2002 Johnson threatened to become the first rookie to win the overall championship and wound up fifth in points, with three race wins. In 2003 he finished second to Kenseth in the final year of the old, full-season Winston Cup points format.

This was the third consecutive year they'd come to Homestead-Miami Speedway with a chance to win the Cup in the last race. In 2004 they lost to Kurt Busch by eight points, the closest margin in NASCAR history. Last year a tire failure knocked them out.

Had they lost again yesterday, that would have tipped them over the brink as NASCAR's most perennially heartbroken team.

The worst disappointment by far was in 2004, when Johnson roared on through the grief of the Hendrick team plane crash that killed 10 people that October, and won four of the last six races in the inaugural Chase, only to lose the season title to Busch.

But this fall they were just too battle-seasoned to lose, even at their low point, four races into this Chase. At Talladega, Ala., Johnson had taken the lead on the last lap and was seconds from a win when he was wrecked by teammate Brian Vickers.

That left him a disheartening 156 points out of the lead, and "everybody kind of hanging their heads" around the team compound near Charlotte, N.C., Knaus recalled last night.

"I felt like that was an opportunity missed, and I didn't feel like there'd be many more," Johnson said.

But there were six races left - just as there were six in 2004 when that surge began.

"We'd overcome a deficit like that before, and I knew we could do it again - but it wasn't going to be easy," Knaus said.

The next five races, Johnson won once and finished second four times, the first real show of consistency in this Chase. These playoffs had been marred by bad luck for all Chase contenders except Kenseth, who had chronic trouble of his own - his car wasn't running very well in the final 10 races.

By Saturday night here, Hendrick realized that Nov. 18 was the 10th anniversary of his being diagnosed with leukemia and beginning long and agonizing years of treatment.

So he met with Knaus and Johnson in the infield motor coach compound and used a line "I've used a lot," he said, through his illness and then the air tragedy that killed his only son, his brother and two nieces, as well as trusted employees and friends.

"I told them, `It's not life-threatening if we don't win this,' " Hendrick said.

The calm he gave them lasted all the way through the race.

Ed Hinton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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