HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Jimmie Johnson did not win the Ford 400 Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway. So, he’s not perfect.
But, for the second straight year, he is NASCAR’s Nextel Cup champion. Matt Kenseth ended Johnson’s four-race winning streak, but Johnson’s seventh-place finish was more than enough to cap off a brilliant Chase for the Nextel Cup performance and give him a 77-point final margin over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.
“I am so proud of this moment,” Johnson said. “It has been an amazing run, and we’ve had a great time together.”
Six years into his Cup career, Johnson now has his two championships and has never finished worse than fifth in the final standings. And there’s no sign of his slowing down.
“We’re just really hitting our stride,” Johnson said. “I feel like we still have a lot ahead of us. ... I think we’ll be winning more races and, hopefully, winning a third championship in the near future.”
Crew chief Chad Knaus, who has been with Johnson for every race in his Cup career, also looked forward after the race.
“It has been a phenomenal ride,” Knaus said. “I am sad it’s over, and I can’t wait for Daytona right now.
“When you’re fortunate to be with a group of guys and have an organization like we have right now, you just want to keep going. Don’t get me wrong, I am going to enjoy the heck out of this championship. But you can’t lose sight that next year is coming, and I want everybody to know that we’re going to be on our game when we get there.”
Johnson had eight top-10s in the Chase, and if you add up his finishes in those 10 races you get 5.0. The sum of the Chase finishes for Gordon, who finished fourth Sunday night and won two Chase races himself, was 5.1.
“We wanted to win the championship, but we got beat,” said Gordon, who was seeking a fifth career title. “That’s just going to make us hungrier in the offseason.”
After winning at Talladega and Charlotte, Gordon had a 68-point lead in the standings. But Johnson won at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix to come into the finale with an 86-point lead and ran, for the most part, a smart, solid race to wrap it up.
“As aggressive as they were being, I thought it was going to bite them,” Gordon said of Johnson’s team. “I guess I was too confident in the whole consistency thing. I thought, ‘Let them go do that and see what happens.’ Man, if they didn’t pull it off.”
Johnson felt that he had no choice.
“I knew I had to get on a tear like that to have a chance to beat Jeff Gordon,” Johnson said. “I knew going into the Chase I had to do everything I could. I knew I needed every point. That’s Jeff Gordon. He’s the best out there. I had to bring my 'A' game.”
As for Sunday’s race, Kenseth pulled off his first victory since the season’s second race at California Speedway. Kurt Busch battled his way back from a flat tire 100 laps into the race to finish second, with Denny Hamlin third.
Kenseth’s 16th career win came in the last race that Robbie Reiser will serve as his crew chief.
“It’s way better being on his side,” Kenseth said of Reiser, who is moving to a position as general manager for Roush Fenway Racing’s Cup operations.
Kenseth and Reiser first met when they were racing on short tracks in Wisconsin, where they started out as rivals.
“Our fathers didn’t get along,” Reiser said. “Matt and I just raced against each other all of the time. It was never to the point where we couldn’t talk to each other. We just didn’t hang out.”
But Reiser hired Kenseth to drive for the Busch team he and his father had, and they stayed together when Kenseth moved to Jack Roush’s team.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to work with Matt,” Reiser said. “It’s great to be able to do this at the top level and do it for so many years.”
Kenseth led 214 of 267 laps on Sunday, but his night was not without angst.
He had a problem with his alternator about midway through the race and had to carefully conserve battery power the rest of the way. Then, on the final restart on Lap 259, he thought he might have a flat tire. But as he got back up to speed he decided it must have been hunk of debris.
Kenseth was 12th in points halfway through the Chase, but finished in the top five in each of the final five races and wound up fourth in the final standings behind Johnson, Gordon and Clint Bowyer.
“If I would have got beat in that last 10 to 12 laps, I’d probably be semi-suicidal tonight,” Kenseth said. “We’ve lost some close ones this year and when that happens I always feel bad because I feel like I let those guys down.”