Jimmie Johnson's road to the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup series title was filled with potholes.
The year started off on a sour note when the No. 48 Hendrick Chevrolet failed inspection during Speedweeks for having an unapproved part on the car. Crew chief Chad Knaus was ejected from the speedway and suspended until March 22nd.
The grit the 48 team is made of became evident when Johnson battled back to earn the win at the Daytona 500. Eighteen top-10s in the regular season saw him enter the Chase second in points and poised him as the driver to beat for the title.
"I think we all matured as a race team," said Johnson. "I have to put a lot of credit in Chad Knaus' hands. When he was suspended those four races, we had a plan in place, how we were going to do things different and that sped things up. He did a phenomenal job on putting this deal together. This has been his baby since day one. I can't thank him enough."
Unfortunately, once the Chase started all the luck seemed to drain away from Johnson. He started off the Chase with a whimper at New Hampshire. The No. 48 Chevy lost a cylinder and began dropping like a rock through the field. They were limping along when Johnson made contact with the non-Chase car of Greg Biffle sending the No. 48 Chevy into the wall and ultimately into the garage. It was almost prophetic for Johnson - who earlier that weekend stated that the race could make or break your chances in the Chase.
The next three events didn't do much to buoy his chances miring him in the back half of the point standings. But as other teams started to implode, the No. 48 team started to get their mojo back. In the last six Chase races he had six top two finishes and one top-10.
"We definitely got a slow start to the Chase but once things started going our way I was hopeful," Johnson commented.
Johnson claimed five victories in 2006 and was the point leader for all but four of the 26 regular season races. He might not be the most popular driver with the fans but the No. 48 team has been the most deserving of the trophy the last couple of years but up until now they just had not been able to pull it off.
"This is just the most amazing day of my life," Johnson exclaimed. "I knew we'd be able to do things right, but you can't control the outside variables and today I was running three or four different wrecks and had a piece of debris go through the race car which we had to fix on pit road. Luckily, we missed all those problems. It's been really weird, this weekend and last weekend in Phoenix. Once I fired the car off, I was in my element. That was my place to be and things mellowed out for me. My mind played games on me, the hours leading up to the race. I had to stay busy during the week which was helpful and then the race weekends I couldn't get away. I couldn't hide. I wore my wife out.
"I can't thank enough people for today, this is amazing"
This wwas the fifth consecutive season that Johnson has finished in the top 10 in points. In 2004, the first year of the Chase format, Johnson had four victories but finished second in the final tally by just eight points. Last year a 40th place finish at this race pushed him from second to fifth in rankings.
"2004 was harder than me than last year," Johnson said of not winning the title those years. "In 2004, I really thought we were competitive. In 2005, we just weren't as competitive; those guys just kept beating us. But in 2004, there were times when I thought this is it, this is going to happen and then I would look in my rear view mirror and see that 97 car (Kurt Busch) and I just couldn't get rid of him. That year was more painful."
It's been two bumpy years of the Chase and an even rockier season. So, Johnson should have expected that his race at Homestead-Miami Speedway would not be without some drama.
On lap 15, the No. 48th Hendrick Chevrolet got drilled with a piece of debris through the grill and fell from the top-12 to 40th place. He raced his way back to the front of the pack but on lap 118 loose lug nuts foiled him again.
A two tire stop and well plotted pit strategy gained him the track position he needed and from there he ran a cautious and conservative race. He waited out a red flag, numerous late race cautions and a green/white/checker finish on his way to a ninth place finish and his first career NASCAR title in any of its series.
"It's been such a long day to get here," explained Johnson. "There are times we were down and out and in the back and had to come back through. It's going to take a little bit for it to sink in but just to think what this team has accomplished, the year we've had, and it's everything I've ever wanted it to be as a champion. It's been a long time since I've won a championship and it means the world to me."
He now has 23 career wins, five of them coming this season.
It's been a fairytale career for Johnson. In 2001, he was driving for a struggling team in the Busch series. He sought out Jeff Gordon and worked up enough nerve to ask the four-time champion for some advice about his career.
Gordon invited him back to his hauler for a chat and by the next week he was hired to drive the No. 48 Hendrick Chevrolet in the Cup series in 2002. He was given all the tools he needed to make that car a winning ride, and it took him just 13 starts to grab his career first Cup win. In his five seasons, he has won a race each year and finished in the top ten in points.