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Race Coverage
First Place

Long Time Coming
Dustin Long, Greensboro News & Record

          HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- What do you want to do?

          Herb Fishel, a General Motors executive and a man who could make racing dreams come true, posed the question to a 21-year-old Jimmie Johnson.

          Johnson pointed at a picture of Jeff Gordon in Fishel's office.

          "I'd like to do that," said Johnson, who raced off-road trucks at the time.

          Fishel made it happen. Johnson soon was living in Wisconsin as he began his stock-car education. He graduated to the Busch series two years later and moved full time to Cup in 2002 for Hendrick Motorsports with Gordon as his mentor and teammate.

          About a decade after that conversation with Fishel, Johnson claimed his first NASCAR Nextel Cup title with a ninth-place finish Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Along with a trophy, Johnson earned $6.2 million.

          Greg Biffle won the race for a third consecutive year.

          Johnson now joins a fraternity headlined by Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Gordon. Johnson's title, secured as a sea breeze cooled the South Florida evening, atoned for the near-misses the previous four years.

          Johnson's crowning moment Sunday concludes a season where he won the Daytona 500 and the all-star race and at Indianapolis. Johnson didn't have it easy although he entered the season finale a heavy favorite with a 63-point lead on Matt Kenseth.

          A piece of debris punched a 6-inch wide hole in the front of Johnson's car, making it appear like a child missing a front tooth. Johnson fell to 39th after repairs -- a piece of fluorescent tape covered the gap.

          "There's our drama for the day," crew chief Chad Knaus radioed Johnson. "Now, you've got to pass all those cars."

          Knaus was wrong.

          About 100 laps later, a tire changer missed a lugnut on a pit stop. As Johnson began to accelerate out of the pit box, Knaus yelled on the radio to stop. Johnson did and the lugnut was tightened. The extra time for the stop dropped Johnson 13 spots to 21st.

          He recovered, racing to the front and tip-toeing around a couple of hot-headed drivers. Johnson even relaxed during a late red flag by resting his head against his head rest and closing his eyes. His family wasn't as calm. His mother walked out of his pit box during a late caution to smoke a cigarette.

          Johnson's dad, Gary, said before the race that few things come easy for the family in racing, noting how Johnson has finished in the top five each of the past four years but not won the championship.

          This chase proved as tough.

          Johnson finished 39th in the Chase's opening race at New Hampshire. He was 165 points out of the lead three races into the 10-race title run. Johnson rallied by finishing first or second in five consecutive races, including a victory at Martinsville.

          That charge and Kenseth's late-season slump gave Johnson the largest lead entering the final race since this title chase was created three years ago.

          That didn't soothe his nerves.

          Gary Johnson said he was calm until he saw his son Saturday in the team's hauler after the final practice session.

          "He was shaking," Gary Johnson said, standing beside the stage after his son hoisted the trophy and crewmembers sprayed each other with champagne. "He made me nervous. He was like 'Kenseth is doing this, Kenseth is doing that.' "

          Johnson admits his calm exterior was an act.

          "The pressure is really, really tough and it started building over the last couple of weeks," he said. "Everybody's remark, even my friends that are here was Don't worry about it.' I'm telling myself that and they are telling me, but it just doesn't hit ... your mind."

          It did as the race approached. His father hugged him before he climbed into the car just as they do before every race they're at together. Car owner Rick Hendrick grabbed him from behind and whispered words of encouragement. Finally, he fired the engine. The race was on. Other than the two early problems, Johnson had few issues. He led a lap and spent most of the race in the top 13 -- where he needed to finish and clinch the title.

          This would not be like 2004 when Johnson came so close to the crown and thought he would win the title. Kurt Busch beat him by eight points.

          He no longer has to worry about those lost titles. He's won one.

          "This," Johnson said, "is the most amazing day of my life."