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Johnson steps it up and drives it home

His unprecedented fourth straight title puts him in some elite company: Gordon, Petty, Earnhardt.

November 23, 2009|By Tania Ganguli
  • Jimmie Johnson and wife Chandra celebrate his fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup title in Victory Lane on Sunday.
Jimmie Johnson and wife Chandra celebrate his fourth consecutive NASCAR… (Chris Graythen / Getty Images )

Reporting from Homestead, Fla. — It will take some time for the gravity of what Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team accomplished at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday to truly sink in for the men who made it happen.

But Johnson knows it's big.

Johnson, 34, won an unprecedented fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. He joined Jeff Gordon, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers to win at least four titles and broke a tie with Cale Yarborough, who won three straight championships.

"It is going to take a little while for those things to jump-start in my mind and get going again. Just so proud of the effort," Johnson said. "Really think of how much I love this sport, how much I respect this sport. The greats before, how they have carried this sport on their backs and made it what it is and then to do something none of them have done. It is unbelievable, man."

When Johnson stepped out of his No. 48 Chevrolet, after engulfing the area in white smoke from his celebratory burnout, he looked at the cheering crowd filled with pride.

He kissed his wife, Chandra. Minutes before, her eyes had glistened as Johnson ran the final few laps of his fourth straight title.

He hugged his crew chief, Chad Knaus. Minutes before, Knaus leaned over his pit box and videotaped the team's celebration. Knaus had the camera handy just in case they actually did it.

With a fifth-place finish in the Ford 400, they did.

"I really never thought in my lifetime I'd see four in a row," Gordon said. "Who's to say they won't win five?"

The victory gave Hendrick Motorsports nine championships -- all in the last 15 years -- and a 1-2-3 finish. Mark Martin, who finished the race 12th, was 141 points behind Johnson, and Gordon (sixth in the race) was third in the points standings.

Team owner Rick Hendrick did not attend the race. He remained in North Carolina with his family as his 29-year-old niece underwent an emergency liver transplant.

"There's a little bit of a dark cloud over it all because of the boss and the family in Charlotte," Martin said. "We made history in multiple ways tonight at Hendrick Motorsports, and for me it's just incredible."

Martin trailed Johnson by 108 points entering the final race. Johnson had a bigger lead before Texas two weeks ago -- 184 points -- but crashed on the third lap, losing most of it. Since then, the pressure of winning a fourth title weighed heavily on Johnson and kept him from enjoying his run.

He led by 73 points heading into Phoenix, the season's second-to-last race. In true Johnson fashion, he won it.

"When I look in Chad's eyes and my guys' eyes, what we did in those four championships and the way we raced, I'm most proud of that," Johnson said. "The last three years gave me so much confidence going into Phoenix. Those moments it's so cool to pull it off."

tganguli@orlandosentinel.com

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