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Jimmie Johnson Stands Alone

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 22 2009
A historic Victory Lane celebration at Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

A historic Victory Lane celebration at Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Homestead, Fla. – No more questions, no more doubts. Jimmie Johnson made it four for the ages.

Topping off yet another consistently brilliant season, Johnson cruised to a trouble-free fifth-place finish Sunday in the season-ending Ford 400, wrapping up an unprecedented fourth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

“The truth of it is, if you love this sport the way I do and respect it the way I do … the greats with (Richard) Petty, (Dale) Earnhardt, (Jeff) Gordon, to do something they have never done is so awesome,’’ Johnson said . “To win four championships in eight years, what this team has done, it’s awesome.’’

While Johnson did his best to take care of his car and stay away from possible disaster, a great race broke out around him. In fact, it may well have been the best race of the season as Denny Hamlin drove from a 38th-place start to win his fourth race of the season.

Hamlin was happy with the performance, but he was also thinking of what might have been after failing to finish three of the 10 races in the Chase for the championship and finishing fifth, 317 points behind Johnson.

“We’re going to be there, I promise you,’’ Hamlin said. “In the next couple of years, I promise you in the next couple of years we’re going to win this championship. … You look at the final points standings and call a DNF 100 points and we’re right there.

“But those guys have been the standard. They haven’t made mistakes and that’s who we ultimately want to be, the guys who are dominating the points like them.’’

Johnson, whose No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team puts on its best performances in the Chase each year, came into the race knowing he only had to finish 25th or better to add this record championship to his resume, started from the pole and stayed among the leaders most of the day.

The only time he fell back into the pack was around midway in the 267-lap event when crew chief Chad Knaus, who has been with Johnson since his rookie year in 2002, brought him in under caution to top off his fuel tank. Only about half the leaders pitted on that yellow, but it didn’t take Johnson long to get back into the top 10.

He stayed there the rest of the day and easily captured the title as Martin struggled to a 12th-place finish. The popular 50-year-old racer finished second in the points for the fifth time in his illustrious career, winding up 141 points behind his Hendrick teammate.

“We made history in multiple ways tonight with Hendrick Motorsports and, to me, it’s just incredible to have had a chance at it,’’ Martin said. “We were the only team in the garage area who had a chance (to beat Johnson) in the last race, and that’s incredible to me.

“I don’t have one of those (championship) trophies, but I can’t imagine it meaning more to me than the feelings that I’ve had from the reactions of my competitors and the fans.’’

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, teammate and part owner of Johnson’s car, also had a so-so day, finishing sixth. But that was good enough to hold off Kurt Busch and give car owner Rick Hendrick another record – an unprecedented sweep of the top three spots in the points.

Unfortunately, Hendrick was not able to be at the track to celebrate with his drivers. The owner, who has been touched several times in his life by tragedy, including losing his son, his brother and two nieces in a plane crash, was called home Sunday to be at the bedside of a niece who is awaiting a liver transplant in Charlotte, N.C.

Seconds after Johnson crossed the finish line, Knaus held up a piece of paper to the television camera that said, “We couldn’t do it without you.’’

Over the radio, Knaus paid tribute to Hendrick and added, “We wish you could have been here.’’

It wasn’t the easiest day for Johnson, who was caught up several times in two- and three-wide battles in heavy traffic.

At one point near the midpoint in the race, Johnson complained to Knaus that “the 33,’’ Clint Bowyer, was racing him too closely.

“It was hair-raising at times,’’ Johnson said. “I mean, everybody’s trying to get the best finish for the end of the year. I got trapped in a couple of positions I didn’t really find enjoyable, but I made it through. I don’t even know where we finished.’’

Jeff Burton wound up second Sunday, followed by Kevin Harvick. Kurt Busch was fourth.

The race also featured a couple of run-ins between Juan Pablo Montoya and two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart.

After the two Chase competitors tangled, sending Montoya into the wall with a flat tire, the Colombian driver went to the garage for repairs. When he returned to the track, Montoya found Stewart and drilled his No. 14 Chevrolet in the rear, sending Stewart sliding off the track.

Montoya was held in the pits by NASCAR for two laps and both he and Stewart left the track after the race without comment.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 22 2009
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