Johnson Reigns For 2006
SOUTH FLORIDA. (November 18)- - Jimmie Johnson finished 9th at Homestead-Miami Speedway and won his first NASCAR championship. It was the sixth championship in NASCAR's top series for Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson overcame an early race debris incident where he dropped to 40th position, but rallied back and was running in the top-10 by the halfway point. He settled in behind Matt Kenseth on the track through a series of late race restarts to clinch the title. Johnson's car owner, Jeff Gordon, was relegated to being the richest cheerleader on the track for most of the day. Gordon struggled with the handling on the DuPont Chevrolet. He started 12th but pitted early in the race and restarted in 27th on lap 12. He made his way up to 21st on lap 50, but handling problems with the right rear hindered his efforts. He slipped back to 33rd on lap 80 and eventually lost a lap during green flag pit stops. As the race progressed he gained spots mainly due to attrition and ended his season with a 24th place finish. Following the race he congratulated Johnson on capturing the series championship. "We were horrible," Gordon said. "It reminds me of Richmond. That's what's scary is that you never know when those bad days can come like that. But nine out of the 10 races in the chase we ran awesome so that has got me really pumped up. With a championship team there and Casey Mears coming on board next year, Kyle Busch and that team as good as they are, I think all four teams are going to be really solid and it's only going to take us to that next level." That disappointment was quickly tempered by the elation of reveling in Johnson's championship-winning season. "I know how proud Rick is and I know much he would have loved to share this with Ricky, with John, with family members that were lost," Gordon said. "He's excited. It's a great moment but I know how much better it could have been and we're just going to try to make the most of it and just try to keep a smile on Rick's face because he deserves it."
AVONDALE, AZ. (November 13)- - Jeff Gordon's championship hopes for 2006 will be dashed as soon as Jimmie Johnson starts his engine at Homestead next weekend. But realistically, Gordon's championship hopes were dashed following three consecutive finishes of 24th or worse during the ten race chase for the championship. In the Checker 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, Gordon started on the pole and came away with a fourth place finish. It was his 13th top-ten finish in 16 races at the track, but he remains winless at the one-mile desert oval. Gordon battled in the top-five for the balance of the day-- including a paint swapping duel with Carl Edwards in the final stages-- but was unable to mount a challenge toward race winner Kevin Harvick or runner-up Jimmie Johnson. On the final lap, Gordon lost a position to Denny Hamlin. "We made a bunch of adjustments throughout the day," Gordon said. "I felt like we did make it better at certain parts of the race, but we didn't need those short runs at the end. That really hurt us. I'm extremely proud of Jimmie and that team to come home second and they got themselves in a solid position for next weekend." While Gordon had a strong finish, he couldn't contend with Harvick or Johnson at the front of the field. "I feel like we've gained a lot, we're a lot closer this time than we were in the past (at Phoenix)," Gordon said. "But there's something that we're missing whether it be a little bit of my driving style or the setups."
Handle With Care
FORT WORTH, TX. (November 4)- - Tony Stewart dominated the race at Texas Motor Speedway and Jimmie Johnson took the points lead with just two races remaining. Further back in the field, Jeff Gordon battled handling problems virtually the entire race but managed a 9th place finish. Gordon started 23rd but quickly knifed through race traffic and into the top-10 on lap 29. Following a competition caution on lap 40, he came off pit road in 5th place. He passed Brian Vickers for 4th on the restart, but that would be his high water mark for the day. He battled a loose handling condition in the first half of the race, but remained in the top-10 due in large part to the efforts of his pit crew. However, as day turned to night Gordon's car became tight. He dropped to 12th with 100 laps to go and was running in 13th with 9 laps to go when a caution for Greg Biffle's cut tire changed his fortunes. He came onto pit road for four tires and restarted in 14th. With two laps to go, he went through the infield grass to avoid the spinning cars of Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. Gordon restarted 10th for the two-lap shootout at the end, and wound up 9th at the line. Gordon moved up to 6th in the standings, but with 150 point between himself and the leader, his title hopes are effectively over for the season. "I was so pumped about the way we started the day off driving from 23rd up there to inside the top 10," Gordon said. "We got in the top five at one time but for some reason after that we were never really that good. We hung in the top-five because of track position there for a while and tried to make some bigger adjustments to get the car better and just kept losing the handling on it. Unfortunately it wasn't what we were looking for but at the same time we got a top-10. That's good for us here."
FORT WORTH, TX. (November 5)- - Terry Labonte concluded his driving career at Texas Motor Speedway. Labonte drove a special paint scheme on the #44 Chevrolet to mark his final race. On Thursday night, Jeff Gordon joined several of his peers in Texas to pay tribute to Labonte's career. "He's been that quiet guy but yet he's been a solid class act on the race track and off," Gordon said. "It's sad to see a guy like him not be out there on the race track after this weekend but it's pretty awesome what he's accomplished over the years especially winning his first championship and then going 12 years and winning your second championship. I think that says a lot about his driving ability."
HAMPTON, GA. (November 1)- - When Jeff Gordon looks back at his 6th in the Bass Pro 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he'll no doubt have mixed emotions. Having led 44 laps, Gordon probably could have finished better than 6th but a mid-race spin hindered his efforts. However, that spin brought out a caution to keep him on the lead lap. Without the spin, Gordon would likely have lost laps after sustaining a flat tire. However, with Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson both finishing ahead of him, Gordon's 146 point deficit likely has the team preparing for 2007. Gordon started 9th and moved through traffic to take 2nd from Kenseth on lap 15. He took the lead from Dale Earnhardt Jr. on lap 115. Gordon's day took a downward turn on lap 158 when Joe Nemechek squeezed him into the wall coming off turn two, forcing Gordon to give up the lead to eventual winner Tony Stewart. On lap 172, Gordon slowed due to a flat tire. He was hit from behind by Jamie McMurray and spun onto the apron of the track. Under caution, Gordon came in five times to fix the damage in the rear of the car. He restarted in 14th on lap 178, and moved into the top-10 on lap 208. The Nicorette/DuPont Chevrolet was strong on long runs and Gordon was running 6th when the caution waved with 35 laps to go. Gordon came off pit road in 5th, but pitted again under caution for four tires with 21 laps to go. He stayed in the high line on the restart and narrowly avoided a wreck that eliminated Mark Martin. He took 7th from Denny Hamlin with 12 laps to go, and passed Carl Edwards for 6th on the final circuit. "I had a lot of fun there at the beginning," Gordon said. "I came up on Joe Nemechek, I was going to the outside and he moved down and he just got loose and came up in to me. There was nowhere I could go. After that we were fighting the handling and cut a tire and Jamie McMurray got in to the back of us. I don't blame him, he couldn't see anything going in to one with the sun at the angle that it was. It was blind corner going in there. We are pretty fortunate to come back and finish sixth." Gordon will drive the Nicorette car in four events in 2007-- Las Vegas, Chicago, Richmond, and Atlanta.
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