LONG QUEST IS OVER; JOHNSON WINS CHAMPIONSHIP IN NEXTEL CUP; ON A ROLL: BIFFLE EXTENDS HIS HOMESTEAD MASTERY

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Date: Nov. 20, 2006
Publisher: Winston-Salem Journal
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,633 words
Lexile Measure: 1350L

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Byline: Mike Mulhern JOURNAL REPORTER

HOMESTEAD,FLA. -- So maybe it wasn't quite as pretty as Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus would have liked. But then their four title challengers didn't offer as much pressure as they should have in such a title showdown.

And car owner Rick Hendrick thus wound up with another Cup championship yesterday, his sixth (this one with co-owner Jeff Gordon), with Johnson's title-winning ninth-place finish in yesterday's Ford 400.

Greg Biffle beat Martin Truex to win the race, his first win since May at Darlington: "Everyone knows it's been a tough year for us. I was nervous as could be, didn't think I could hold off those two guys (Truex and Kasey Kahne). I was really nervous about Martin."

The win was Biffle's third straight at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But the heart of the drama was Johnson in his bid for the Nextel Cup title.

Johnson came into the race with a 63-point lead over Matt Kenseth, and Johnson this time finally finished it off, winning by 56 points, after missing the title in each of his first four seasons on the stock-car tour.

"It's just such a long day to get here," a weary Johnson said. "There were times when we were down-and-out in the back, and had to come back through.

"It may take a while to sink in. I knew we had a great team, I knew all along we could do it, we just had some bad luck at the start of the chase. And then we got some momentum, and some guys had some bad luck, to let us get back into it.

"This is everything I've ever wanted, to be a champion. This means the world to me. This is just the most amazing day of my life.

"They say behind every man is a good woman, and you have no idea how good my wife, Chandra, is. I have punished her the last few weeks with my emotions and my stress."

Johnson, 31, is NASCAR's seventh different Cup champion in the past eight years. He won five times this season, at Daytona, Las Vegas, Talladega, Indianapolis and Martinsville.

Rookie Denny Hamlin, running third after fighting his way from a 33rd starting spot, finished third in the standings, 68 points behind Johnson.

"Jimmie and those guys didn't let anybody fluster them, they did what they had to do," Hamlin said.

Kevin Harvick wound up fifth in the race and fourth in the standings, 78 points down. "There's no disappointment here," Harvick said. "We all knew coming in that, unless Jimmie beat himself, we were all on the outside looking in."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., ran a dismal 19th and wound up fifth in the standings, 147 points down. "We had a really good car when the sun was out, but when the sun went down we had problems," Earnhardt said. "My guys might be down about things and bummed out tonight, but they've got a lot to be proud about this year. And we've got a lot to look forward to."

Those four were the only drivers with a shot at catching Johnson. The rest of the 10 Chasers: Jeff Gordon (24th last night) finished sixth, 219 points down; Jeff Burton (14th), seventh, 247 down; Kahne (fourth), eighth, 292 down; Mark Martin (18th), ninth, 307 down; and Kyle Busch (43rd), 10th, 448 down.

The fast line during the day was high up next to the wall; when the evening cooled the asphalt the fast line moved back to the middle of the track. Biffle said that was because this year's tires are so hard.

Knaus seemed relieved at the end, after his first Cup title: "This team has really come into its own the last year. We've had to battle back from a lot of weird stuff. I'm more happy for my guys than for myself.

"There's never been a team to come into this division with as much pressure on it as this team. When we came in here in 2002, we had Jeff Gordon's championship-winning race cars (from the 2001 title run), so Jimmie and I and the team all had to step up. And to win the championship in 2006 is just incredible."

Kenseth, too, was glad that it was all finally over. "It's been one of our best seasons ever, the most consistent," Kenseth said. "I wish we could have put some of our stronger performances in the Chase. But looking over the whole year and we've had the fastest cars we've ever had."

"The last few weeks have been tough, because the performance in the car hasn't been there, and that's my responsibility," Robbie Reiser, Kenseth's crew chief, said. "But we'll be back next year."

And the season-opening Daytona 500 in only 89 days away.

The championship was Hendrick's first since 2001. Before the race, Hendrick tried to take some of the edge off Johnson's nervousness by pointing out that there are more important things in life, as Hendrick well knows, because it was exactly 10 years ago, on Nov. 18th, that he was found to have leukemia.

Johnson was sixth on a late restart, with 11 laps to go, and he only had to finish 13th or better to take the title, after leading a lap early for a five-point bonus. He dropped back cautiously to eighth. Then a final caution with six to go, for Casey Mears' blown engine, to set up a two-lap sprint.

Johnson found it a little more dramatic than he'd hoped, but his problems were relatively minor. He had a scare during a routine pit stop on lap 118 when his crew dropped a lug nut on a front tire as he started to leave his pit. In a cool move, Johnson caught the problem almost instantly and stopped, letting his crew fix the problem. But it did cost him time, about 10 spots on the track. He was running ninth just before the stop.

Johnson also had a loose spring bounce off his car's nose and damage it at one point.

The most dramatic moment of the relatively uneventful race came late when Juan Pablo Montoya slammed the wall hard, apparently after being tagged by Ryan Newman. The two had had a run-in earlier. The race was Montoya's first on the Nextel Cup tour.

Montoya's Dodge exploded in a fireball but he managed to get out of the car unscathed.

NASCAR halted the field for 10 minutes with a red flag to clean the debris.

"Ryan got me in the back I think," Montoya said.

"When he spun, we didn't even touch.

"He came up to me, and if that's what he wanted to do, I don't care."

Despite the ugly ending, Montoya's Nextel Cup debut was impressive. "We proved we can run up there," Montoya said. "But it's going to be hard. It's not going to be easy. Still, I think my performance has been getting better race by race."

Ford 400 race results

Fin./Start Driver Model Laps Money won

1. (22) Greg Biffle Ford 268 $323,800

2. (20) Martin Truex Jr. Chevy 268 $260,458

3. (33) Denny Hamlin Chevy 268 $183,500

4. (1) Kasey Kahne Dodge 268 $190,689

5. (7) Kevin Harvick Chevy 268 $157,586

6. (19) Matt Kenseth Ford 268 $141,991

7. (2) Scott Riggs Dodge 268 $91,100

8. (31) Carl Edwards Ford 268 $99,475

9. (15) Jimmie Johnson Chevy 268 $119,986

10. (10) Clint Bowyer Chevy 268 $85,400

11. (23) David Stremme Dodge 268 $94,508

12. (24) Scott Wimmer Chevy 268 $65,950

13. (13) Joe Nemechek Chevy 268 $107,645

14. (5) Jeff Burton Chevy 268 $95,895

15. (21) Tony Stewart Chevy 268 $120,411

16. (11) Reed Sorenson Dodge 268 $76,925

17. (28) Paul Menard Chevy 268 $64,925

18. (26) Mark Martin Ford 268 $82,725

19. (14) Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevy 268 $113,216

20. (40) Tony Raines Chevy 268 $70,700

21. (6) Brian Vickers Chevy 267 $75,600

22. (27) Jeff Green Chevy 267 $89,458

23. (16) Ryan Newman Dodge 267 $109,108

24. (12) Jeff Gordon Chevy 267 $112,786

25. (43) Bill Elliott Chevy 267 $63,700

26. (25) Dave Blaney Dodge 266 $78,033

27. (34) Travis Kvapil Chevy 266 $75,622

28. (38) Kyle Petty Dodge 266 $73,775

29. (37) Ken Schrader Ford 266 $92,689

30. (8) J.J. Yeley* Chevy 265 $100,325

31. (41) Dale Jarrett Ford 265 $96,625

32. (39) Casey Mears* Dodge 261 $95,983

Fin./Start Driver Model Laps Money won

33. (9) David Gilliland Ford 257 $90,483

34. (29) Juan Pablo Montoya* Dodge 251 $61,425

35. (42) Jamie McMurray* Ford 250 $108,050

36. (4) Elliott Sadler* Dodge 230 $90,991

37. (18) Sterling Marlin* Chevy 213 $60,800

38. (3) Kyle Busch Chevy 206 $78,600

39. (17) Mike Bliss* Dodge 201 $60,400

40. (35) Robby Gordon* Chevy 187 $60,175

41. (30) Bobby Labonte* Dodge 83 $96,911

42. (32) Jeremy Mayfield* Dodge 78 $59,675

43. (36) Kurt Busch* Dodge 9 $100,506

Race statistics

Time of race: 3 hours, 12 minutes, 23 seconds. Winner's average speed: 125.375 mph. Margin of victory: 0.389 seconds. Caution flags: 11 for 43 laps. Lead changes: 15 among 10 drivers. Lap leaders: K.Kahne 1-18; Kyle Busch 19-46; K.Kahne 47-104; D.Earnhardt Jr. 105-106; J.Johnson 107-108; P.Menard 109; K.Kahne 110-117; D.Earnhardt Jr. 118-162; M.Truex Jr. 163-189; E.Sadler 190-206; K.Kahne 207-209; S.Riggs 210; K.Kahne 211-213; G.Biffle 214-248; J.Yeley 249-256; G.Biffle 257-268.

Did not finish*

J.J. Yeley (out of gas); Casey Mears (engine failure); Juan Pablo Montoya (accident); Jamie McMurray (engine failure); Elliott Sadler (engine failure); Sterling Marlin (engine failure); Mike Bliss (engine failure); Robby Gordon (accident); Bobby Labonte (accident); Jeremy Mayfield (oil leak); Kurt Busch (accident).

CAPTION(S):

Jimmie Johnson raises the Nextel Cup after beating Matt Kenseth by 56 points. C8: Juan Pablo Montoya's first Nextel Cup race came to a fiery end after he wrecked. He was not hurt.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A154726786