HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) – Jimmie Johnson’s California cool turned to euphoria when he won the Daytona 500. At Indianapolis, his emotions were overwhelmed again after a win he never expected.

Still, Johnson had won races before.

A first NASCAR championship? For the driver who had everything but, nothing could have come as a bigger relief.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time for this to soak in, just to think what this team has accomplished and the year we’ve had,” Johnson said. “Being a champion, it’s the only thing I ever wanted to be.”

He finally got his wish Sunday, wrapping up an overdue Nextel Cup title with his ninth-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It sealed his championship by 56 points over Matt Kenseth, who finished the race ahead of Johnson, in sixth.

Greg Biffle won the Ford 400 for the third straight season, beating rookies Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin to the finish line. Kasey Kahne was fourth and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

Juan Pablo Montoya, making the first Nextel Cup start of his budding NASCAR career, ran as high as 13th, but his race ended in a fiery wreck 16 laps from the finish.

When this Chase got rolling 10 weeks ago, few thought Johnson would win it. The most dominant driver of the regular season had wrecked out of the first Chase race, dropped to ninth in the standings and knew he’d need a furious rally.

“I think we knew in our hearts we could do it all along, we just got into some bad luck at the beginning,” Johnson said. “That’s what let us get the momentum, let us sleep well at night, is because we knew this team was capable of winning a championship. We just had to have some good luck.”

But even with a little luck, it still looked bleak: He was 165 points out after the third Chase race.

That’s when Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports crew turned it up a notch, reeling off five straight wins of second or better. It moved them back on top of the leaderboard – where they spent 22 of 26 weeks of the regular season – and sent them into Homestead poised to win the title.

He didn’t need to be perfect to do it, either. To lock this one up, Johnson needed only to finish 12th or better.

Sounds easy enough. But in typical Johnson fashion, it was anything but.

Flying debris ripped a hole in the grill of the No. 48 Chevrolet a mere 15 laps into the race, then his team couldn’t find the tape to patch it. He almost pulled out of his pit with a loose lug nut, but crew chief Chad Knaus noticed it and frantically stopped Johnson from pulling away.

Then he had to avoid Robby Gordon’s spinning car.

“We’ve been ducking them all day,” Knaus sighed after Johnson scooted past Gordon.

But on Sunday, the little things that sunk Johnson in the past turned out to be mere annoyances. Johnson was twice a championship runner-up, and a cut tire caused him to fall to fifth in last season’s bid.

“I knew we had a good team. I knew we’d be able to do things right. But you just can’t control the outside variables,” Johnson said. “Today I was around three or four wrecks and had a piece of debris go through the front of the race car, which we had to fix on pit road.

“There was a lot of crazy stuff going on, and luckily we missed all those problems.”

The race was delayed nearly eight minutes to clean the track after Montoya’s wreck, briefly postponing Johnson’s long-awaited celebration. But with the title right in front of him, he wasn’t too worried – he’d worked all that out of his system long before the race even began.

“Once I fired the car off, I was in my element and my place to be, and things really mellowed out for me,” Johnson said. “My mind really played games with me in the hours leading up to the race.”

How he stayed calm – considering all his issues – is a mystery.

When caution came out with 62 laps to go, Knaus wanted to change all four tires and stretch it to the end. But Johnson wasn’t convinced, and demanded his crew copy whatever Kenseth did.

With his spotter keeping a close eye on Kenseth, who took only two tires, Knaus quickly adjusted and ordered the same service. It put Johnson in ninth place on the restart with 58 laps to go, but a stack of traffic behind him on four fresh tires.

“Drive it like you stole it, homie,” Knaus encouraged him.

Johnson held his position, then copied Kenseth again on a final round of pit stops. Kenseth was in fifth and Johnson was in sixth on the re-start with 16 laps to go, and it would take only a catastrophe at that point to deny Johnson the title.

But two late cautions – Montoya’s wreck, followed by good buddy Casey Mears blowing an engine – again prolonged the celebration.

Finally, the race was restarted for a two-lap shootout to the end.

“It was such a long day to get here,” he said in Victory Lane. “There were times when we were down and out, and in the back, and had to come back through. This just means the world to me, it’s the most amazing day of my life.”

Jeff Gordon, the four-time series champion who befriended Johnson and convinced car owner Rick Hendrick to give his new protege a ride, celebrated on the cool-down lap by bumping into the side of Johnson’s car.

“I don’t like to take much of the credit because Jimmie is a heck of a race car driver,” Gordon said. “Somebody was going to pick him up, and I’m just really thankful that the opportunity presented itself to us. I think he’ll be one of the best champions we’ve ever had because he cares so much about it.”

Knaus received a celebratory hug from Hendrick, who won his sixth championship as a car owner, and another from Ray Evernham, the championship crew chief turned rival car owner who taught Knaus much of what he knows.

“This team has really come into its own over the last year,” Knaus said. “I just couldn’t be prouder. We had to battle back from a lot of weird stuff this year, and they held strong.”

It started with the season-opening Daytona 500, when Knaus was caught cheating in race preparations. He was sent home and forced to watch Johnson win the biggest race of the season on TV. And he was still at home, finishing up his four-race suspension, when Johnson scored his dramatic win in Las Vegas.

They finally reunited in late March, but needed five more races to make it to Victory Lane together. They did it in Talladega, conquering a track that had tormented Johnson throughout his career and threatened to tarnish his squeaky-clean image with a series of Johnson-caused accidents.

Then they won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August, giving Johnson same-season victories at NASCAR’s two historic venues. It automatically made Johnson the favorite to win the title: Five of the past eight Brickyard champions parlayed their wins into a championship.

Now it’s six of nine.

Hamlin finished third in the final Chase standings and was followed by Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Gordon was sixth, Jeff Burton was seventh and Kahne, Mark Martin and Kyle Busch completed the Chase field.

Reigning champion Tony Stewart, who failed to make the Chase but won three of its races, finished 15th Sunday and finished 11th in the standings to earn the $1 million payout.

Johnson earned $6.2 million in race winnings, but his payday doesn’t end there – the final prize money is announced Dec. 1 at NASCAR’s end-of-year banquet in New York City. Last year, Stewart totaled more than $13 million for his title.

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