NEXTEL Ford 400Final
Johnson wins second Nextel Cup title in race won by KensethNov 19, 2007 - 4:26 AM By Bruce Martin PA SportsTicker Contributing Editor
HOMESTEAD, Florida (Ticker) - One week ago after the NASCAR Nextel Cup race had ended, Jeff Gordon said "It's over" regarding the battle for the Cup title.
He was right.
Jimmie Johnson did all he needed to do to wrap up his second-straight Nextel Cup by playing it safe. He finished seventh as Matt Kenseth won Sunday night's Ford 400.
After starting on the pole and leading the first lap, all Johnson had to do was finish 19th or better. Gordon's fourth-place finished sealed the championship for Johnson, who won the title by 77 points.
"Last year was an amazing season and to come back this year and not lose anything over the off season and get this opportunity to win it again, I can't thanks these guys enough," Johnson said. "I can't believe all the success I've been able to achieve. It's awesome stuff."
Tony Stewart's crash on lap 254 set up decision time on pit road as the contenders for the victory stayed on the track rather than pit for tires.
That kept Kenseth in the lead when the green flag waved with nine laps to go. Kenseth's Ford Fusion was ahead of Kurt Busch's Dodge Charger and Martin Truex's Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
Kenseth finished 0.852 seconds ahead of Busch. Denny Hamlin was third in a Chevrolet followed by Gordon. Carl Edwards' Ford rounded out the top five.
The last driver to win back-to-back Cup titles was Gordon in 1997-98.
Gordon was the first to congratulate him as he pulled up beside Johnson on the backstretch.
"It's a testament to these guys and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports," said Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief. "It was a great day and man, I can't wait for Daytona.
"We were fortunate enough to sit on the pole. I wish we could have been more aggressive and gone for the win but you have to do what you can to win the championship."
Ironically, Johnson's finish ended a four-race winning streak for the driver from El Cajon, California.
Kenseth's crew chief, Robbie Reiser, got a victory in his final race with the driver. He moves up to become general manager at Roush Fenway Racing next season.
"What an honor and privilege it was working with Matt Kenseth," Reiser said in his final race as a crew chief. "I'm not a real emotional guy. I'm a racer."
Kenseth's victory is the last for the current generation of race car in NASCAR.
"It's a great feeling, I lost a lot of close races this year and it feels great to win a close one," Kenseth said. "This was an awesome ride today."
Kenseth feared a tire was going flat on the final restart but it was a piece of debris that rubbed off once the car was up to speed.
"I'm really going to miss working with Robbie Reiser but he's still be at the shop every day," Kenseth said after winning his second win this season.
Gordon's fourth-place finish was a fine effort but not enough to make up an 86-point deficit he faced entering the race.
"We knew it wasn't about tonight," Gordon said. "If we performed the last four weeks like tonight it might have been a different outcome. But with the way those guys stepped it up we got behind and came in here with an 86-point deficit and couldn't catch Jimmie.
"It's bittersweet. We had a great year with top 10s and top fives and got beat. It's an awesome year but we got beat. It will make us hungrier this off-season. Let's get them next year."
Gordon's season was outstanding and his average finish per race was less than 5.0 but he didn't win the title.
"We do things a little different than Jimmie but we should have gotten a little more aggressive sooner this year," Gordon said. "Jimmie and those guys were a little more aggressive than we were. Looking back on it we should have got more aggressive. Tonight was a little more aggressive than we have been in some time and a better finish than we've had in some time.
"We'll go to work in January."
Johnson got hot when it mattered the most, winning four races in a row in The Chase and that catapulted him to the title.
"Everything came together, we're rocking," Johnson said. "We stayed focused on the right things and got the job done. I can't thank Jeff Gordon enough, too, for helping me get this job and I can't thank (team owner) Rick Hendrick enough, too.
"We knew what we were up against and we were up against the best in the business. We got it and finished 1-2 in points and did all that we could. Hopefully, we come back again next year and do it again."
Johnson led just the first lap, before dropping back to a safe zone on the track. Kenseth dominated the race, leading eight times for 214 laps followed by Hamlin, who led three times for 19 laps.
There were 25 lead changes among 11 drivers and seven caution periods for 32 laps.
Kenseth won at an average speed of 131.881 miles per hour, and the 2003 Cup champion, the last driver to win it before the advent of "The Chase", was able to end his season on a positive note.
"I hope it carries over to 2008," Kenseth said. "I guess we had five really good runs to finish the year off and that feels good. We really ran strong throughout `The Chase.' I think our performance obviously wasn't quite as good as the 48 (Johnson) and maybe the 24 (Gordon), but I think our performance was as good or better than any other Chase closing the season out, so it's pretty awesome to get up to fourth from where we were five weeks ago.
"Tonight we just had a dominant car. The track and the way my car was loose, especially kind of getting into the corner, you really had to stay on top of it every lap and try to hit your marks just right and kind of sliding around, so it was a lot of fun."
Kenseth's victory was worth $359,941, which pales to the amount of money Johnson's team gets for winning the Nextel Cup title. He will collect over $7 million as the season champion on top of $7,646,421 which will make him the "$15 Million Man."
"You could see the big prize and focus on the right things," Johnson said. "In my own head today, I experienced what goes on on the track, the doubt that comes into my mind. I wanted to go through with that. In my head, I executed in the race car.
"The pressure did not get to anyone. We were in the fire and executed like we needed to."
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