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Johnson Clinches Cup Title at Homestead

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (Nov. 19, 2006) - Jimmie Johnson’s racing career started on a small motorcycle when he was 5 years old and culminated here Sunday night when the 31-year old Californian stood on the roof of his Lowe’s Chevrolet, lifting the 2006 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup trophy over his head to the cheers of fans, teammates and a national television audience.

Johnson clinched the championship by finishing ninth on Sunday Homestead-Miami Speedway and ending the 2006 “Chase for the Championship” 56 points ahead of second-place finisher Matt Kenseth.

“This is everything I ever wanted,” said Johnson seconds after standing on top of the car and before accepting a $6.5 million check. “This is the most amazing day of my life.”

Johnson admitted the last few weeks have been tense. The pressure outside the race car grew as the chances to win the trophy grew larger.

“It’s been hell. No way around it,” laughed Johnson who said once the car fired up each Sunday the pressure eased.

On Sunday all Johnson had to do was finish 12th or better and he would clinch the title. But it wasn’t going to be easy.

Johnson suffered some debris damage after Kurt Busch hit the wall in the early laps then a slow pit stop after a lug nut fell off the wheel. In the closing laps repeated cautions and the red flag only heightened the anticipation.

A green-white-checkered finish saw Greg Biffle win the race, but Johnson’s ninth-place finish was the story of the day.

“This was the longest (race) in my life,” joked car owner Rick Hendrick who earned his sixth NEXTEL Cup title on Sunday.

For Johnson it was the perfect end to a nearly perfect season.

In the 60-plus years of NASCAR racing, few drivers and teams have ever enjoyed the success the Lowe’s team did in 2006.

It began the year winning the Daytona 500 in February, then it kissed the bricks at Indianapolis in August after winning the Brickyard 400, and Sunday it took home the championship trophy making it a sweep of the sport’s most important prizes.

Johnson visited victory lane five times in a season that saw him also post 24 top-10 finishes—the most of any driver.

However, crew chief Chad Knaus said more happened in 2006 than just the team posting some impressive statistics.

“It was a year when everybody came into their own,” said Knaus who has been Johnson’s only NEXTEL Cup crew chief. “Jimmie has matured an awful lot this year—especially in the last 10 races. It’s been a growing season for us. And I think we’ll have many more seasons like this.”

Johnson’s “dream season,” as he calls it, wasn’t without adversity.

Early in the season the Hendrick Motorsports team raced the first four races without crew chief and team architect Knaus. Darian Grubb stepped in and demonstrated the depth and talent of Hendrick Motorsports.

Late in the season, once the “Chase for the Championship” began, Johnson fell 256 points behind the leader and it seemed he would retain the “best driver to not win a championship” moniker for another season.

The fastest thing in NASCAR isn’t the cars, but how quickly things change. Johnson went on a roll after the fourth race posting five consecutive top two finishes and storming back to grab the lead.

“I think we knew in our hearts that we could do it all along,” Johnson said Sunday night.  “We just needed some luck.”

Johnson’s 23 victories in just a five-year stretch of full-time competition combined with the title makes for one of the greatest starts of a racing career.

But it didn’t come easy.

With the support of his family, Johnson started on 50cc motorcycles at the age of 5. His father, Gary, worked for a tire company and his mother, Cathy, drove a school bus. With Jimmie and younger brothers Jarit and Jessie in tow, the family spent most of their weekends camping and doing what they loved—racing.

During these weekends, it wasn’t unusual to see Gary preparing the tracks for the kids to race and Cathy running the concession stand.

Johnson was successful on motorcycles at an early age. By the time he was 8, he won the 60cc class championship despite blowing out his knee with several races remaining in the season.

From motorcycles, Johnson graduated to the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group Stadium Racing Series where he won more awards. A 1993 meeting arranged by his mentor, supercross champion Rick Johnson (no relation), proved fortuitous.

While racing at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Rick Johnson introduced his young protégé to the executive director of GM Racing, Herb Fishel. The protégé lived up to his billing, impressing Fishel with his driving ability and business acumen.

Fishel kept his eye on Johnson that year. He later walked into an off-road racing team meeting and threw a picture of Johnson on the table informing the team that Johnson was the man they needed to drive their car.

Johnson seized the opportunity, spending the next few years driving buggies and trucks in off-road stadium and desert races. Johnson also improved his ability to connect with fans and potential sponsors by reporting for ESPN in the Short Course Off-Road Drivers Association Series.

The work paid off in another way as Johnson met his future car owners Stan and Randy Herzog while working in the series. The eager driver crafted a proposal and took it to his friend, Fishel.

Fishel gave the owners and their ambitious driver a shot and in 1997 Johnson climbed behind the wheel of an American Speed Association car and got his first taste of pavement racing.

His victories in the ASA Series paved the way for his move to the NASCAR Busch Series. Johnson won only twice, but he caught the eye of drivers and car owners, including Hendrick.

“I guess when I really started watching him a lot was in the Busch Series. He was actually down in Darlington, and Jeff Gordon was helping Ricky (Hendrick). Jimmie was like second-fastest, I think,” recalled Hendrick.

“So we went over to ask him something about what his car was doing, and he said, ‘Well, I’ve only been here (once)—this is my eighth lap on the track.”

Johnson signed with Hendrick Motorsports, which convinced Lowe’s to take a chance on a rookie driver when the team debuted in 2001 and began full-time competition in 2002. Johnson made his first NEXTEL Cup appearance in 2001, starting 15th and finishing 39th at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

Driving the Lowe’s Chevrolet in 2002, Johnson won the rookie of the year award plus three races. He was the first rookie to ever lead the points during the season.

The 2003 and 2004 seasons saw Johnson emerge as a dominant driver. He won 11 races in those seasons and finished second in the points race both years.

The team met and even exceeded the expectations of co-owner Jeff Gordon.

“They came right out of the box and were championship caliber,” Gordon said. “Heck, they have been finishing ahead of me in points.”

In 2005, Johnson won four races and seemed the odds-on favorite to win the championship, but accidents and mechanical problems left him with a fifth-place finish.

For Johnson the near misses were lessons he applied in 2006.

“We’ve been through the ups and downs of the seasons with the disappointment of not winning the championship and all the different trying things that really try relationships in our sport,” he said. “We’ve stuck by each other’s sides and found a way through it.

“Believe me, there were times when it was tough to work through it, but Rick is so good at that and he is a great people person. That’s one of his biggest assets. Through the discussions he has had with me and Chad, we were really able to focus on the right things and take a lot of the pressure we’re putting on ourselves off of us and have a great season.”

Knaus put the championship in perspective.

“We’ve had some pretty awesome victories and some good times, but to win the championship puts you in a very elite group,” he said. “And the group of people that we compete with is the best in the business.

“I’m privileged every day when I walk into work because there are only about 55 people in the world that have my job. And that makes me feel pretty good. To be the champion of all the crew chiefs in the world out there, makes me very proud.”

Gordon might have best summarized the 2006 season and predicted the future of the Lowe’s team.

“To see them start back over again this year and then fight back after their problems at the beginning of the Chase is amazing,” said the four-time Cup champion. “This is going to make these guys a lot stronger in the future.”

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