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NASCAR: Johnson a big star in Big Apple

Associated Press

NEW YORK — Jimmie Johnson believes his NASCAR Nextel Cup championship is something special, and not just because it came after several frustrating near misses.

Before stepping on stage at the historic Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Friday night to collect a record-setting $15,770,125, including $6,785,982 from the series sponsor’s points fund, Johnson reflected on a season in which he won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and three other races, as well as coming back to take the title after stumbling out of the blocks in the 10-race Chase for the title.

“In general, I think it’s one of the best seasons ever,” said Johnson, who has earned more than $44 million in his five-year Cup career. “I’m really proud of what this team accomplished this season, especially with the things we had to overcome.”

The other nine drivers in the Chase also were given big checks Friday night, along with 11th-place finisher Tony Stewart and rookie of the year Denny Hamlin.

Runner-up Matt Kenseth got a points fund check for $2,841,047 and finished the year with a total of $9,524,966, while 10th-place Kyle Busch, last year’s top rookie, received $1,256,244 for a total of $5,537,337. Two-time champion Stewart, who missed the Chase by just 16 points a year after winning the championship, totaled $8,739,169, including $1,143,888 from the points fund, a $250,000 bonus for finishing 11th and $310,000 in sponsor contingency prizes. That’s a far cry from the $13,578,168 Stewart collected last year, which set also set a season record, but still the third highest in 2006.

Hamlin, who also finished third in the points, got a points fund check of $2,168,710 to push his grand total to $6,607,932.

In all, checks were handed out on stage Friday for more than $22 million, the largest top-10 point-fund payout in series history.

But, more than the money, Johnson was proudest of joining Lee Petty, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon as the only drivers in the sport’s history to win both the Daytona race — NASCAR’s Super Bowl — and the title in the same year.

“I can’t even tell you what an honor that is,” Johnson said. “It’s historic and mind-boggling.”

The No. 48 Chevrolet team started 2006 without crew chief Chad Knaus, suspended for the first four races for cheating in preparing the car for Daytona qualifying. Johnson not only won the opener at Daytona, but he added another win, a second and a sixth while Knaus was away.

Gordon, a four-time Cup champion who is also co-owner of Johnson’s car with team owner Rick Hendrick, acknowledges he thought “Here we go again” when Johnson got off to a bad start in the Chase and found himself eighth, trailing then-leader Jeff Burton by 165 points, after the first three races of the playoffs.

But Johnson and the team charged back into contention and eventually to the top.

“This championship came just at the right time. We needed to learn some lessons,” Johnson said of himself and his team. “We need to grow up as a race team.”

At first, everything was a whirl of emotions for Johnson. But, once the feeling of being a champion began to sink in, Johnson started to relax and enjoy the sensation.

“I’ve tried real hard to share this with Mr. Hendrick, Chad, the rest of my team,” Johnson said.

The first few times Gordon stood on the stage in New York, tears ran down his cheeks and he found it hard to speak as he thanked those that helped him get up there.

Johnson said he talked to Gordon about that and tried to make very sure that he kept his emotions in check on Friday after a whirlwind week of celebrations and media events in New York that included being at the head of the top 10 drivers as they drove their race cars through Times Square on Wednesday morning.

“Last year, I let somebody write my speech and I made some mistakes and felt pretty uncomfortable,” explained Johnson, who took home fifth-place money a year ago. “This time, I decided I wanted to write the speech myself, keep it short and make sure I did it right.

“I talked to Jeff about what happened to him, and I’m feeling pretty good about what I have to do.”

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