Sports

Johnson repeats as Nextel Cup champ

Jimmie Johnson celebrates after winning the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series championship in Homestead, Fla., Sunday. 
(Associated Press Photo / Terry Renna)
Jimmie Johnson celebrates after winning the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series championship in Homestead, Fla., Sunday. (Associated Press Photo / Terry Renna) AP

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Totally calm and cool, Jimmie Johnson left the pre-race drivers' meeting Sunday afternoon flashing the peace sign at people wishing him luck.

Two fingers.

Two consecutive championships.

Johnson became the first driver to win consecutive championships since Jeff Gordon in 1997 and '98, wrapping up the title by finishing a trouble-free seventh in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Matt Kenseth won the race.

When it was over, he and crew chief Chad Knaus were already thinking about a third.

"We're just really hitting our stride," Johnson said. "I think that we have a lot of good years ahead of us and we'll be fighting for more championships and certainly winning more races as the years go by, and hopefully be a three-time champion in the near future."

This Sunday drive was a coronation, and Johnson knew it. Deep down, so did everyone else, too. NASCAR is changing eras next season, but the Johnson era atop the sport is just getting started.

Team owner Rick Hendrick was along for the ride when Gordon ruled the sport, and said it's clear this is Johnson's time now.

"Jimmie's just getting better and better, phenomenal," Hendrick said. "He's as determined as anybody I've ever seen sit down in a race car. I don't see anything that's going to slow Jimmie down. I hope that we can keep it together. We can do some phenomenal things in the future.

"Can we get 10, guys?" Hendrick asked, looking at Johnson and Knaus. "OK, we're going to get 10."

Johnson came into the event with a cushy 86-point lead over Gordon, his friend, mentor and teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. Although Johnson only needed to finish 18th or better, he refused to play it safe and Knaus gave him a pole-winning car.

Johnson led the first lap to earn a quick five-point bonus, then settled in for the 400-mile ride into the record books. At a time when no single team is supposed to dominate, the No. 48 crew did just that in leading Johnson to 10 victories and a stout 5.0 average finish during the Chase for the championship.

It put it out of reach for Gordon, who was hoping to add a fifth Cup title to his dream season. He became a father in June, won six races and his fourth-place finish Sunday was his NASCAR-record 30th top-10 finish of the year.

"It's an awesome year, but you know what? We wanted to win a championship and we got beat," said Gordon, who pulled alongside Johnson for a celebratory nudge and pumped his fist in excitement during Johnson's burnout.

Gordon was also terrific in the Chase, winning twice and averaging a 5.1 finish. But it wasn't enough against Johnson, his hand-picked teammate who wound up surpassing him as the sport's dominant driver.

Johnson became the first driver since Gordon to win double-digit races, four in a row and the consecutive titles. His 77-point victory margin was the largest in the four years of the Chase.

"I'll be honest, I really thought that as aggressive as they were being, it was going to bite them," Gordon said. "I guess I was just a little bit too confident in the old consistency thing.

"Man, if they didn't pull it off. That's how good they are."

It was a far different approach from last year, when Johnson fretted over everything -- especially the outcome. He had lost the championship in 2004 and 2005, and the stress of it made him unable to relax.

"Losing those two championships taught us a lot. It was painful," Johnson said. "And there were points there where we went back, looked at it and tried to adjust. And it's led to these two championships."

Finally winning last year chilled him out, and the California kid had a "no worries" attitude during the entire Chase. He packed a quick trip to Mexico into his schedule two weeks ago, spent time hanging out in New York City and even made plans for his championship party a week in advance.

"After what I experienced last season and coming into this season, and even this night, it just went so much smoother for me," he said. "I was in the right frame of mind, was focused on the right things. I had great support from the crew guys, great support from my loving wife and everything came together. We're rocking."

Sunday's finale was the last race for the current car, as a new era begins next season when NASCAR will use the CoT exclusively. The series name also is changing, from Nextel Cup to Sprint Cup.

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