November 25, 2006 8:26pm CST
It was 1994 and Jimmie Johnson was pondering his future in a very uncharacteristic fashion – and place. In a desert gully somewhere in Baja Mexico, sitting atop a huge boulder, lost from civilization for nearly 48 hours. Jimmie Johnson, then 19, was leading the famous Baja 1000 when he suddenly disappeared from the horizon, his truck missing a turn and flying into that gully, being wrecked beyond repair. It didn't help that he truly was in the middle of nowhere and out of reach of radio signals. Race officials narrowed down Johnson's location to about a 50-mile radius – or at least that's where they thought he was. Trying to find him would be like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. While rescuers searched, Johnson did his own searching – of his soul, that is. Although he grew up racing dirt bikes, motorcycles and off-road trucks in and around Southern California and Mexico, things just weren't adding up or him anymore. He knew he still wanted to be a racer, but off-road racing – despite leading one of the biggest endurance races in the world before wrecking – just wasn't giving Johnson the warm fuzzies anymore. It was while sitting on that big rock in Baja, waiting for help, that Johnson decided to get off the road less traveled. He thought about the choices he had: Indy Car racing, sprint car racing, even NHRA drag racing. And then, almost as an afterthought, he thought about stock car racing and NASCAR. He considered the challenge of being a Southern California surfer dude trading fenders with the best good ol' boys of the South. If nothing else, Johnson knew that if he ever broke down in a stock car, at least he'd be easy to find and not be lost for two days. Most importantly, he'd have plenty of help. "That's it, I'm going to NASCAR," Johnson said to himself, watching as the stars and moon aligned in the sky and in Johnson's mind at that exact moment. And the rest is history. Twelve years later – to the day – Johnson knows without a doubt that he indeed made the right decision, going from being a butt resting on a boulder to sitting on the throne as the new king of NASCAR. Capping a phenomenal season that began with a controversial win in the Daytona 500, through winning the Nextel All-Star Challenge, the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, as well as additional wins at Las Vegas, Talladega (spring) and Martinsville (fall), Johnson on Sunday became the toast of the stock car world as he clinched the Nextel Cup championship here at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His name now will forever be linked with some of NASCAR's greats – fellow champions like Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and even his own Hendrick Motorsports teammate and car owner, Jeff Gordon. While Johnson, with his competitive spirit, would have preferred a win, he knew only a top-12 finish was necessary to clinch the title. And while Johnson might have wanted to run a conservative race, he did need to overcome a couple of early obstacles en route to finishing ninth, defeating runner-up Matt Kenseth by 56 points to earn the biggest championship of his racing career. In so doing, Johnson finally shook off all the critics and doubters who predicted he would wind up being this generation's hapless Mark Martin, to come close several times but never win it all – not even once. Until Sunday's season-ending Ford 400, those critics and doubters were right in their assessment. In his first four seasons on the Cup circuit, Johnson had back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2003 and 2004, wrapped around fifth-place finishes in his rookie season of 2002 and in 2005. After coming so close to winning the title in 2004, falling a Cup-record eight points short of eventual champion Kurt Busch, Johnson began to question whether a Cup championship ever would be in the cards for him. To be so close, even being in the lead in the standings at one point during that season-ending race before a late rally by Busch, shook Johnson to his core. He even publicly wondered if he was permanently snake-bit, that he'd be able to win races and sit atop the standings during the season, but never be on top when it counted. That's not the case any more. Johnson now has his coveted Cup championship, the final piece of the puzzle that often defines a career and serves as a distinction between being just a good Cup driver and a great Cup driver. Twelve years ago Sunday, Johnson climbed down off that rock and his future suddenly seemed very clear. Twelve years later, Johnson climbed back up – only this time it was on to the championship podium, with a future that never looked brighter. Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski is Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR columnist. Send Jerry a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.