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Jimmie Johnson was starting to wonder. Johnson has run near the front for a long time, but the ultimate prize of his profession had eluded him.
|Jimmie Johnson finally got his hands on the hardware he's been after for so long.|
As he stood on a stage Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, holding the Nextel Cup, all the doubts were erased. Finally, Johnson is the champion.
He finished ninth in the Ford 400 to clinch the title, something he had in his grasp the previous three seasons before seeing it slip away.
"It's everything I ever wanted -- to be a champion," Johnson said immediately after the race. "It's the most amazing day of my life. We knew in our hearts we could do it all along."
Greg Biffle won the race for the third consecutive year, but all eyes were on Johnson and the four championship contenders.
The Chase was designed to add championship drama and excitement in the final race. Johnson didn't cooperate. He did what he had to do, the same way he has all season. Johnson overcame misfortune, made up for mistakes and avoided disaster.
A hole on the grill, a dropped lug nut, a near accident, none of it stopped Johnson from achieving his goal Sunday.
The No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet has been the best all season. They persevered when things went against them. That's what champions do.
Johnson won the Daytona 500 one week after crew chief Chad Knaus was suspended for breaking the rules. Johnson won at Talladega, the place where people blamed him for multicar crashes in 2005.
His championship hopes looked dim six races ago when he was 156 points behind and sitting eighth in the Chase. But Johnson made one of the best stretch runs in history, winning once and finishing second five times entering the last event.
(Unofficial after final race)
|3. (+1)||Denny Hamlin||-68|
|4. (-1)||Kevin Harvick||-78|
|5.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||-147|
|8. (+1)||Kasey Kahne||-292|
|9. (-1)||Mark Martin||-307|
"We had to battle back through a lot of weird stuff," Knaus said. "We made some adjustments this year and the team came into its own. I can't tell you how much it means. This is the only thing I ever wanted my whole life."
Johnson had a 63-point lead over Matt Kenseth entering the final event. Kenseth finished sixth Sunday, not enough to catch Johnson.
"Jimmie really deserves this," Kenseth said. "The truth is they've been the best overall team for the last four years."
All weekend, Johnson and Knaus kept saying they weren't worried. If they didn't hold on and win the title this season, it wasn't a big deal.
It wasn't true, of course. For a team that finished second in the standings twice in the last three years, only the Cup title could avoid complete devastation.
"It's been hell, no way around it," Johnson said of the days leading up to the last race. "We knew we had a team that does things right, but there is so much you can't control. And a lot of crazy stuff was going on out there today."
Johnson's first scary moment came early. He hit a spring rubber on the track, punching a small hole in the grill. The crew taped over it in the pits during a caution on Lap 17.
It dropped Johnson to 39th and temporarily moved him into second place in the standings. Kenseth was running 11th and leading the standings by 16 points.
But Johnson calmly worked his way forward. By Lap 69 he was 12th, the spot that guaranteed him the title.
Johnson had more trouble while pitting on Lap 118. A lug nut wasn't tight on the left front tire. He restarted 16th, but was 11th by Lap 152 of the 267-lap race.
Johnson was running sixth with 79 laps to go when Robby Gordon spun in front of him. Johnson didn't panic and made it by cleanly.
The last 14 laps were agonizingly long for the 48 team. A wreck involving Juan Pablo Montoya caused his car to burst into flames, bringing out a red flag.
The restart came with 11 laps to go, but another caution came with six laps left when Casey Mears blew an engine. Knaus slammed his hand on the pit wagon, frustrated that the race wouldn't end.
When it did, Johnson was where he need to be, just like he was five years ago.
Johnson was just a young Busch driver hoping to find a ride in Cup and brave enough to ask Jeff Gordon about it. Gordon, now the co-owner of Johnson's car, convinced Rick Hendrick to hire Johnson.
"I saw what a humble guy he was and how bad he wanted it," Gordon said in a TV interview after the race. "Rick asked me if I was willing to put my money where my mouth is."
Gordon said yes, but many people in NASCAR doubted the logic of that decision. They didn't doubt it for long.
Johnson has finished in the top five in his first four Cup seasons, but the championship ring always went to someone else.
He won eight times in 2004, but lost the first Chase to Kurt Busch by eight points. He went to Homestead last year in second place, hoping to catch Tony Stewart for the crown, but Johnson cut a tire and hit the wall early in the race.
He fought with Knaus last year and the two men considered heading their separate ways. Hendrick convinced them to say together.
"We just all matured as a race team," Johnson said. "A lot of the credit goes to Chad. This has been his baby since Day One."
Johnson got a check for $6.2 million to go with the Nextel Cup trophy. He has 23 Cup victories in his career, but said this week he would gladly trade all of them for a championship.
No need for that now. The best man and the best team won this championship.
Through all the disappointment of falling short in the past, Johnson just kept running up front.
And good things happened. The best thing. The old adage was true.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.