Sunday, November 16, 2008
Updated: November 17, 10:47 AM ET
Johnson makes it official with title-clinching effort at Homestead
By Ed Hinton
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- In the end, Jimmie Johnson chased down NASCAR history by taking it easier than he had all season.
He equaled Cale Yarborough's 30-year-old record of three consecutive Cup championships with a 15th-place finish Sunday -- but that was just the culmination of a cautious promenade through the season-ending Ford 400.
And he did what neither Richard Petty nor the late Dale Earnhardt, the two drivers tied for the most career championships with seven, could. Both Petty's and Earnhardt's best cluster of titles was four out of five seasons.
Carl Edwards did everything he could in his last gasp at overtaking Johnson for the season title. Edwards won the race, crossing the finish line out of fuel, and led the most laps.
But it wasn't nearly enough. Johnson won the championship by 69 points, the second-largest margin in the five-year history of the Chase.
"It is over," Johnson said. "I can't believe we're a part of history."
His crew chief, Chad Knaus, claimed an individual place in the NASCAR record books, becoming the first pit boss ever to win three straight titles.
Yarborough won his three titles with two different crew chiefs under team owner Junior Johnson. The 1976 and '77 championships were won with Herb Nab, and the '78 season was directed by Tim Brewer.
Speaking for both his and Johnson's accomplishments, Knaus said, "I've just got to sit back and let it all soak in. It's what we work for. It's what we do. We don't want to do anything but race cars and win races and win championships. ..."
Johnson led only six laps Sunday, and that was just a midrace tactic to add a little padding of five bonus points against Edwards' last gasp at the title.
Knaus saw an opportunity to inherit the lead under caution, 69 laps from the end, by taking only two tires and beating the other front-runners out of the pits.
"Being cautious in the back really isn't a lot of fun, so we decided just to try to get five bonus points," Knaus said.
That in itself broke Johnson and Knaus out of the ultraconservative mode historically employed in season-ending races by teams with significant points margins.
And while he was up front, Johnson showed he had a Chevrolet that could have contended for the win if the far bigger picture of the championship hadn't precluded the risk.
"We had a car capable of winning the race," Knaus said. "But we ran the race we needed to run. And the race we needed to run was for the championship."
The car was so good that Johnson went almost serene once the race started.
"From the first lap on the track, I knew we had a car that was in the ballpark and a car that I could drive to the front," Johnson said. "So I felt very, very good once the race started."
But Johnson, although he had no blatant close calls, was angered at times by the behavior of other drivers who risked ruining his championship.
The ones who gave him trouble are habitual offenders, he said, but he was shocked that they remained so wild around him with such a milestone at stake.
"Week after week they're in the way and cause wrecks and cause problems," he said. "You'd think that in the course of what's gone on tonight, that people would show some respect. And they don't. ...
"I was mad at points," he continued. "I cannot believe how stupid some of these guys can be out there."
So you could pardon Johnson for not taking the risk of leading much, especially considering the 1,953 laps he had led in points races this season coming into the finale.
That's the most this year by any Cup driver, although Johnson's total of seven race wins wound up third best. Edwards' win Sunday was his ninth, and Kyle Busch had eight before his season fell apart as soon as the Chase started in September.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
We had a car capable of winning the race. But we ran the race we needed to run. And the race we needed to run was for the championship.
-- Chad Knaus