Johnson caps dream season by winning Nextel Cup championship

AP Auto Racing Writer

HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Not long ago, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus were considering a split.

The driver-crew chief combination worked well during the regular season - better, in fact, than almost any other - but when NASCAR's playoffs got going, something wasn't right. They couldn't carry their success through to the finish.

So car owner Rick Hendrick sat them down and made them decide if the relationship should continue.

They chose to stick it out. And this year, they worked it out.

No bad luck, no ill-timed wreck, no gremlin in the machinery was going to deny Johnson his long overdue Nextel Cup title Sunday.

''It was a decision we had to make - they really had to make - did they want to be together?'' said Hendrick. ''They made that decision, and when things got tough this year, they cinched it up between the two of them. They're as good of a combination as I've ever had in racing.''

They proved it with a banner season.

A Daytona 500 victory. A win at the prestigious Indianapolis Motor Speedway. All but four of the 22 regular-season weeks on top of the points standings.

But the No. 48 team was used to those kinds of accomplishments.

A first NASCAR championship? For the driver and team who had everything but, nothing could have come as a bigger relief.

''It's going to take a little bit of time for this to soak in, just to think what this team has accomplished and the year we've had,'' Johnson said. ''Being a champion, it's the only thing I ever wanted to be.''

He finally got his wish via a ninth-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway that sealed his championship by 56 points over Matt Kenseth, who finished the race ahead of Johnson, in sixth.

Greg Biffle won the Ford 400 for the third straight season, beating rookies Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin to the finish line. Kasey Kahne was fourth and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

Juan Pablo Montoya, making the first Nextel Cup start of his budding NASCAR career, ran as high as 13th, but his race ended in a fiery wreck 16 laps from the finish.

When this Chase got rolling 10 weeks ago, few thought Johnson would win it. The most dominant driver of the regular season had wrecked out of the first Chase race, dropped to ninth in the standings and knew he'd need a furious rally.

''I think we knew in our hearts we could do it all along, we just got into some bad luck at the beginning,'' Johnson said. ''That's what let us get the momentum, let us sleep well at night, is because we knew this team was capable of winning a championship. We just had to have some good luck.''

But even with a little luck, it still looked bleak: He was 165 points out after the third Chase race.

That's when Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports crew turned it up a notch, reeling off five straight finishes of second or better. It moved them back on top of the leaderboard - where they spent 22 of 26 weeks of the regular season - and sent them into Homestead poised to win the title.

He didn't need to be perfect to do it, either. To lock this one up, Johnson needed only to finish 12th or better.

Sounds easy enough. But in typical Johnson fashion, it was anything but.

Flying debris ripped a hole in the grill of the No. 48 Chevrolet a mere 15 laps into the race, then his team couldn't find the tape to patch it. He almost pulled out of his pit with a loose lug nut, but crew chief Chad Knaus noticed it and frantically stopped Johnson from pulling away.

Then he had to avoid Robby Gordon's spinning car.

''We've been ducking them all day,'' Knaus sighed after Johnson scooted past Gordon.