CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Jimmie Johnson opened and closed the 2006 season on top, for very different reasons.

The year began with the controversial suspension of his crew chief, who was caught cheating before the Daytona 500 and kicked out of the garage for four weeks.

It ended with Johnson and Chad Knaus hoisting the Nextel Cup trophy as the championship winning team.

It was a headlining year for Johnson, but he hardly stole the show.

NASCAR’s 2006 season was thick with story lines, subplots and drama that didn’t involve Johnson at all.

There was NASCAR’s intense focus on the future, two elite teams moving in opposite directions and the defending Nextel Cup champion embarking on his own rollercoaster season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon both returned to the top of the sport – with Gordon making a pit stop to get married along the way – while a handful of former contenders dropped to the back of the field.

But the main theme of the season was change as everyone spent most of the year preparing for what’s to come in 2007: A foreign automaker, a Colombian driver, a futuristic car and a new television network.

NASCAR chairman Brian France is confident the new look can jump-start a sport that seemingly has stalled after a decade in the fast lane.

“It’s an awful lot of change, but it’s going to be good change,” France said before Sunday’s season finale. “A lot of exciting things for the fans and the drivers and everyone else to look forward to. I love where we’re at, and we’re excited about where we’re going.”

It all started with Toyota, which said in January it would enter Camrys in the Nextel Cup Series in 2007. The announcement coincided with NASCAR’s decision to phase in its custom-designed “Car of Tomorrow,” which will debut next season and is meant to cut costs and improve safety.

Fans will become acquainted with Toyota and the CoT next year on ESPN, which will replace NBC.

Toyota started the biggest domino effect as it worked hard to land the top talent in NASCAR: The garage was consumed for months with which drivers would sign with the automaker. Toyota had its sights set on Kevin Harvick or Matt Kenseth but got Dale Jarrett and Brian Vickers instead.

Still, Harvick played the game and kept his options open – a hardline stance that forced car owner Richard Childress to pull his once-proud team from the back of the field to the front of the pack. When Harvick realized RCR was a competitor again, he re-signed and had the best season of his career. With five Cup wins, nine Busch victories and that series title, as well as a spot in the Chase for the championship, Harvick helped RCR become a major player again.

But he received help from teammate Jeff Burton, who resuscitated his career by ending a five-year winless drought and making a major play for the Nextel Cup title.

Yates heads into the offseason still trying to save his flagship No. 88.

So far, he has only David Gilliland – the unproven driver who shot to stardom with a freak Busch win in June – holding his operation together.

Toyota also lured Vickers away from powerful Hendrick Motorsports, as well as Champ Car driver A.J. Allmendinger, who is just one of the many open-wheelers invading NASCAR.

It started in July with Juan Pablo Montoya, who stunned the racing world by fleeing Formula One for NASCAR. He’s committed to a full schedule next year, while reigning IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr. is testing the waters. He closed the year with two forgettable Busch Series starts.

When the open-wheelers get comfortable, they might find themselves battling with former series champion Tony Stewart.

The two-time champ had a truly bizarre season as he struggled with his role as a garage leader, slumped on the race track and missed the Chase for the championship.

It started at Daytona, when he publicly warned someone would be killed because of the dangerous racing conditions. That led NASCAR to police aggressive driving, and Stewart was one of the first offenders. Then he angrily backed away from commenting further on the issue.

He was a split-personality most of the season, lecturing young drivers on etiquette then breaking most of his edicts. He ultimately hit a summer swoon (no thanks, probably, to the broken shoulder blade he suffered in May) and failed to qualify for the Chase.

Unable to defend his Nextel Cup title, he spent the final 10 weeks of the season focusing on himself. He hired a personal trainer, lost 20 pounds and breezed his way to three wins during the Chase.

He wasn’t the only previous contender to watch from the sidelines: Ryan Newman and Jeremy Mayfield, both two-time Chase qualifiers, also failed to make the postseason. Newman never really got rolling, while Mayfield feuded with car owner Ray Evernham. Mayfield was fired, then aired the team’s dirty laundry in court documents in an attempt to land a better severance package.

They were replaced in the Chase by Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon, the two big stars who missed it in 2005. Harvick and Burton stepped in for RCR, and rookie Denny Hamlin surprised many by racing his way to a third-place finish in the points.

“This has definitely been a year that exceeded every expectation,” Hamlin said, speaking for almost everyone.

AP-ES-11-21-06 1710EST



Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.