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From 'almost' to 'at last'
After two years of late falters, Jimmie Johnson wins the Chase
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    HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Hard though he tried, Jimmie Johnson just couldn’t give another Nextel Cup championship away.
    Johnson completed his dream season by cruising over every speedbump in his path, overcoming debris in his grill, a missing roll of tape, a loose lug nut, treacherous traffic and his own nerves to finally win the NASCAR championship that had taunted him the past two years.
    On Sunday, the little things that used to sink him turned out to be nothing more than mere annoyances.
    Johnson, the perpetual points leader for the past three regular seasons who always found a way to collapse in the Chase, finally put it all together, wrapping up his title with a 9th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He finished with a 56-point lead over Matt Kenseth.
    ‘‘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.’’
    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. Kenseth was sixth.
    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 15 laps from the finish.
    The race was delayed nearly eight minutes to clean the track, briefly postponing Johnson’s long-awaited celebration. No matter for Johnson, who finished lower than second for the first time in six races.
    But he didn’t need to be flawless to win this one: He started the day with a cushy margin that required him to only stay out of trouble and finish 12th or better to wrap up the title.
    Unfortunately for Johnson, nothing is ever that easy.
    His troubles started a mere 15 laps into the race, when flying debris punched a gaping hole in the grill of the No. 48 Chevrolet. When he went in for repairs, his crew couldn’t find any tape to patch it.
    Later, he nearly pulled away from a pit stop with a loose lug nut. Then he had to avoid Robby Gordon’s spinning car.
    ‘‘We’ve been ducking them all day,’’ crew chief Chad Knaus sighed after Johnson scooted by Gordon.
    But he still had heavy traffic to deal with and, of course, his own nerves. 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.
    When it was over, Johnson, a two-time championship runner-up, had his elusive title.
    ‘‘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 by bumping into the side of Johnson’s car on the cool-down lap.
    Knaus then 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, but in true Johnson fashion, it didn’t come easy.
    Although he led the points for all but four of the 22 weeks of the regular season, he once again fell apart when the Chase began by crashing out in the first of the 10 races. It dropped him to ninth in the standings and forced him to mount a furious comeback for the third straight season.
    ‘‘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.’’
    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 Kasey 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.