Johnson finally joins NASCAR's elite with first career Cup
November 25, 2006 8:32pm CST
Jimmie Johnson thought he had it made two years ago, when he started to get that "tingling feeling" that he was about to win the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship. The only problem was he forgot to tell Kurt Busch, who went on to defeat Johnson by just eight points. After finishing ninth in Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson could celebrate his first Nextel Cup crown. The wait was worth it to the driver who started the season by winning the Daytona 500, captured the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard in August and closed the season by hoisting NASCAR's biggest prize, the Nextel Cup. In the process, he removed the burden of being one of the best drivers in the sport who had yet to win the championship - a characterization Johnson felt was inaccurate. "I don't see it as a burden and I don't think anyone on our race team does," Johnson said. "It's our fifth season together. We look at it as a compliment to hear that response. "Don't get me wrong, we didn't want to miss an opportunity when we were in the position to become a champion." Johnson certainly has nothing to be ashamed of despite the fact he entered "The Chase for the Championship" in 2004 and 2005 as the regular-season points leader, only to watch Busch win the title in 2004 and Tony Stewart celebrate his second championship last year. "We won four races in the final ten races a couple years ago when Kurt Busch won the championship, we were hitting on all cylinders," said Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports. "The big difference between this year and that year is nobody had any major issues in that Chase, and we went through our typical fall Talladega race where we crashed out or blew an engine or whatever it was and had to overcome that." Johnson's team hit its low point at Talladega when he appeared primed to pass Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the victory in the third turn of the last lap. That was before teammate Brian Vickers pushed the issue by running into the back of Johnson's Chevrolet Monte Carlo. That sent Johnson's car into Earnhardt's Chevy, taking out the top two cars while Vickers went on to win the race. Instead of making a huge gain in "The Chase," Johnson was 156 points out of the lead in eighth place. He had entered the race 165 points out, his largest deficit in the 10-race postseason. "It was bleak, but the thing that I can remember walking to the shop the next day, guys were all bummed out and you could see heads hung pretty low," Knaus recalled. "I just went around to all of the guys in the shop and slapped them on the back and picked them up." Knaus knew there was plenty of racing left and Johnson and the team had time to not only erase the deficit, but take a secure lead. "I knew we had a lot of opportunities and there were a lot of opportunities left," Knaus said. "We had overcome a deficit like that before and I knew we could do it and I knew that it wasn't going to be easy. We had the road laid ahead of us and we were very fortunate to be able to go out there and win and get us a couple of seconds." The stretch that earned Johnson his championship actually began at Lowe's Motor Speedway when he finished second to Kasey Kahne on October 18. He would win the following week at Martinsville Speedway, then follow that with second-place finishes at Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix. That surge gave Johnson a 63-point lead over Matt Kenseth entering Sunday's season-finale, where he simply needed to finish 12th or better to secure the title. Ninth place proved to be more than sufficient as Kenseth's sixth-place finish gave Johnson a 56-point edge in the final standings. "I'm happy to finish second to Jimmie," Kenseth said. "Those guys have been the guys to beat the last four years, really, for a championship. They've been unbelievably fast and consistent. Those guys really deserve it, and it's been a great year." Johnson's road to the championship still had a few potholes that could have been potential land mines. He started 15th, but dropped to 40th after 16 laps when a piece of debris shot through his grille. If it had punctured the radiator of Johnson's Chevrolet, it could have been disastrous. During a pit stop for a caution on lap 190, Johnson also overcame a miscue in the pits when the jack was dropped before all the lug nuts were tightened on one of his wheels. "Jimmie was about to take off and as he was taking off, I was watching the guy trying to get the lug nut on before the car pulled off," Knaus said. "A lot of things can happen during the pit stops that can cost you whether the car is outside of the pit box or a loose lug nut." But the biggest thing Johnson finally overcame was that hollow feeling that came from leaving Homestead without winning the title. "In 2004, that was tougher on me because I felt 2004 was the year for us," Johnson recalled. "Last year we got a decent start and we kept pace with Tony Stewart and those guys were just outperforming us. But 2004, there were periods in the race out here, where I thought, 'This is it, it's going to happen.' "I have a tingling feeling and I look up in my mirror with the closing laps and the 97 (Busch), I couldn't get rid of him. That year was more painful than last year." Johnson admitted the last few weeks he had to overcome the nervousness and anxiety that comes with a championship battle. But he would endure and now he gets to represent the sport as its champion. "It's going to sink in and I'm really, really going to enjoy this experience," Johnson said. "I've been jealous the last four years watching the different champions go through banquet week and the things that go on, and I've just wanted to be in that position. "Now I'm in that position, and it's just going to be a huge honor and a lot of fun and I'm going to make the most of it."