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Jimmie's turn

After coming close so often, Jimmie Johnson finally earns a Nextel Cup.

By BRANT JAMES
Published November 20, 2006


HOMESTEAD

Chandra Johnson laced her lithe fingers into a knot and stared at the tiny flat screen atop the pit box, praying until her knuckles blanched. Rick Hendrick stood each time the rumbling pack of cars raced around Turn 4, following Jimmie Johnson like a trainer steely eyed on a prized race horse.

Gary Johnson just paced behind the pit wall. The wait was interminable, and it was taking its toll on the wife, the team owner and the father in its own way.

Jimmie Johnson, the perennial challenger denied, who carried the dreaded label of best racer in the garage without a championship, finally had a first Nextel Cup title in his grasp in Sunday's Ford 400. He was running eighth. All he needed to do was click off 21 more laps. Stay there. Finish. It was his.

But spinning cars, exploding fuel cells, imploding engines, a red-flag period and green-white-checkered finish made a five-year wait just a bit longer. For all who had anticipated this moment as much as Johnson.

Then, a pit box jammed with at least 60 family, friends and fans for the last 50 laps was finally able to celebrate in a release of joy and relief when Johnson crossed the finish line ninth on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, sealing his first championship in a stock car.

"Oh, God, those last laps took forever," Gary Johnson said, as he hopped over the pit wall to race out toward his son's car. "This has been a really long time coming."

Johnson came in 63 points ahead of second-place Matt Kenseth and needed only to finish 12th, or lead a lap and finish 13th. Kenseth was sixth in the race, but Johnson won the title by 56 points, the largest margin in three seasons of the Chase for the Championship format.

"This one feels especially good because of how close crew chief Chad (Knaus) and Jimmie have been before," said Hendrick, who won his sixth Cup championship with a third different driver.

Though near misses and heartbreaks - including two second-place points finishes - have marked his career, Johnson seemed to sense his sleek car was going to bring this one home. As he circled under caution with 77 laps left, Knaus told him over the radio with slight disappointment that he was 13th for a restart - a seven-spot loss under caution - because several cars had not pitted.

Johnson answered quickly, resolutely: ""That's all right; we just follow (Kenseth) the rest of the night."

"10-4," answered Knaus. And so he did.

Gary Johnson joked all weekend, perhaps trying to defray the pressure his son was concealing, that "Johnsons always do things the hard way," and he was proved right early in the race.

Johnson was ninth on Lap 15 when Kurt Busch's No. 2 Dodge blew a tire and went out of control for the second time, veering sharply and chucking a spring on the track. Johnson, just moments behind, slowed quickly but hit the rolling part, which punctured the nose of the car. He needed a long pit stop for repairs and dropped to 40th on the Lap 18 restart, losing the points lead.

"Okay, there's our drama for the day," Knaus keyed in over the radio.

It was higher drama than most realized. In front of the stage after the race, confetti stuck to a 6-inch wide swatch of bright orange tape that covered a potentially terminal wound on the No. 48 Chevrolet.

"Three inches the other way and it's through the radiator," said jackman Chris Anderson, who grew up in Tampa. "Three inches, and you're done."

Johnson quickly passed backmarkers with ease and retook the points lead from Kenseth for good by Lap 35 as he was able to stay in the top 10 without having to race much at all, making up all but three spots on the racetrack.

A last bit of intrigue occurred as he ran seventh on a Lap 117 yellow-flag pit cycle. Johnson was about to pull out of the pits when Knaus noticed the left front tire had a loose lug nut. The tire changer hammered down the loose lug nut, dropping Johnson to 16th on the restart, but a safe 16th.

Johnson, who has won a series-best 23 races since his rookie year in 2002, wasn't sure if his finish had secured the championship until his team began wailing over the radio. But his friends were, including Crystal River native and major- league pitcher Mike Hampton.

"It was interesting on the front side of this knowing that people were planning trips down here to hopefully celebrate and I had to try to put that out of my head," Johnson said. "A lot of credit goes to Chandra because I did my best to put up a calm front. But it's been difficult."

But now the wait is over. Finally.

Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com.