Johnson wins elusive first Nextel Cup title
November 25, 2006 8:29pm CST
HOMESTEAD, Florida (Ticker) -- Greg Biffle's "three-peat" gave Jimmie Johnson an unprecedented first. Despite winning Sunday night's NASCAR Ford 400 for the third year in a row, Biffle took a back seat to Johnson, who finished ninth en route to his first career Nextel Cup title. Johnson, 31, had become a perennial bridesmaid in NASCAR's premier series, narrowly missing the title each of the past four seasons despite annually finishing in the top five. But the two-time series runner-up was second to none in 2006, capturing five checkered flags, 13 top-five finishes and 24 top-10s. He became the sixth title winner for Hendrick Motorsports, joining four-time winner Jeff Gordon and 1996 champion Terry Labonte. "It's such a long day to finally get here," said Johnson, who faced a 165-point deficit one-third of the way through "The Chase for the Championship." "There were times when we were down and out and in the back. We're a champion, and that's all I ever wanted to be is a champion. The second driver in NASCAR history to win the Daytona 500 and the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard in the same season, Johnson also dominated in The Chase, capturing one victory and four second-place finishes over the final six events in the 10-race postseason. Among those who congratulated Johnson on the stage when he was awarded the Nextel Cup was 2005 champion Tony Stewart. "This is the most amazing day of my life," Johnson said. "I think we knew in our hearts we could do it all along, we just needed some momentum and some luck. Some guys had some bad luck, and that allowed us to get back in it. I can't thank enough people for this today." Before the championship celebration, however, there were was an international incident on the race track. Ryan Newman's Dodge Charger spun through the grass with 20 laps to go to bring out a yellow flag, setting up a mass pit stop. That was after Newman was bumped by former Formula One driver Juan Montoya. Matt Kenseth took two tires on his Ford Fusion during the ensuing pit stop while Johnson also took right-side tires on his Chevrolet Monte Carlo. The green flag flew with 18 laps to go and J.J. Yeley was in the lead with Biffle running second before Montoya's car slammed hard into the wall, bursting in flames. Montoya was able to get out of the burning car without any injuries. It appeared that Newman extracted revenge by hitting the back of Montoya's Dodge, sending it on its spin. "When he spun, we didn't even touch," Montoya said. "He came up to me and if that's what he wanted to do, I don't care. I'm not racing for points or anything here. It was same as the Busch, no big deal. It's going to be hard. I knew when I signed with Chip (Ganassi) that it wasn't going to be easy. I'm racing against great drivers, and it was awesome racing against them today." NASCAR officials ordered both Newman and crew chief Mike Nelson to the NASCAR trailer to discuss the incident with Montoya. "I felt for Juan," Newman said. "I felt bad for the situation and him catching on fire and everything. I did not crash him on purpose and we'll go on." The red flag came out, stopping the race while the track was cleaned off after Montoya's crash. Racing resumed with 11 laps to go and Yeley in the lead, but Biffle passed him for the lead one lap later, setting sail to checkered flag that was interrupted one more time when the engine in Casey Mears' Dodge finally quit. Yeley, who was running fifth at the time, ran out of fuel on one of the caution laps, which set up a green-white-checkered flag finish. But when the green flag waved, there was nothing between Biffle and the checkered flag. It was the second win this season and the 11th career for Biffle, who averaged 125.375 miles per hour in a Ford. "Our Ford was something else this weekend," said Biffle, who earned $323,800. "My dad is sick right now and can't be here, but I'm thinking of you and this win's for him. I was nervous as could be that I wouldn't be able to hold those guys off." Martin Truex Jr. ran interference ahead of Kasey Kahne and finished second by 0.390 seconds. Rookie Denny Hamlin was credited with third place, followed by Kahne and Kevin Harvick. There were 15 lead changes among 10 drivers, with Kahne starting on the pole and leading five times for 90 laps. Earnhardt and Biffle were next, each leading two times for 47 laps. The race was slowed 11 times for 43 laps of caution, only delaying the inevitable another victory here for Biffle. "It's been a tough year for us," he said. "As you know, we've had a tough year but to come here in Miami and win for the third year in a row is special. "Each year has been different. Today was no exception. It was very difficult to get my car to handle like I wanted it to. When it got to be nighttime, I was able to get my car to run in the middle of the race track, which is where I needed it to."