Racing beat

Jimmie Johnson climbs atop his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet on Park Avenue outside the Waldorf-Astoria for the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Awards Ceremony.

Twice the Victory
For two consecutive years Jimmie Johnson has claimed top honors in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Can he make it three in a row?

The 2007 season saw him put together one of the most dominating streaks in the sport’s history down the stretch, turning the Chase for the Championship into a two-man race with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.

But even Gordon, a four-time champion who this year led the points when the Chase began, couldn’t keep pace with the driver of the Lowe’s-sponsored Chevrolet.

“It has been sinking in,” Johnson says of his accomplishments. “I’m just so proud of what we’ve done when I look back on the season and the victories. We turned around our qualifying effort and won some poles this year. We went out and raced the best of the business in this championship.”

Johnson spent the short off-season trying to be something of a goodwill ambassador for NASCAR, a role he says he’s now fully grown into. He says that role has developed largely of its own accord.

“Being a champion representing the sport, there are some responsibilities that come with that,” he says. “And I feel that taking the professional approach that I do to our sport, and wanting to represent the sport and sponsors and all that stuff in the right manner, I’m taking care of the stuff that I probably should and need to.”

Johnson won 10 races in 2007 and had a staggering 20 top-five finishes. What sealed the deal on a second consecutive title was winning four back-to-back races during the Chase – specifically four of the last five.

In the final event of the season, at Homestead, he wound up seventh, which was more than enough to secure the crown. In fact, all Johnson had to do in that race was finish 18th to wrap things up.

“We knew we couldn’t put our guard down,” Johnson says. “We knew who we were racing – [Gordon] and the team on that track are better than anyone else out there, and they had an amazing year. And we knew we had to fight to the very end to get this thing done.”

Johnson and Gordon have a combined 23 victories over the last two years, prompting talk of a Hendrick dynasty. Johnson says that honor should be associated with Gordon, but he hasn’t quite earned his way there – not yet, anyway.

“I think Jeff in what he’s accomplished in his career is certainly worthy of that title,” Johnson says. “The 48, we’re not there. We’ve done something amazing, but we’re not in that realm yet. And I certainly hope to be. But I think Hendrick Motorsports and what Rick has done in the sport without a doubt deserves that title.”

So how difficult will it be to make it three for three in 2008?

“Every year it gets tougher and tougher,” Johnson says. “Teams are getting stronger every year. And you’ve got guys with more experience. I think we have a great crop of talented drivers that are now in years two and three in their Cup careers.

“I think it’s a great time to be part of our sport and, hopefully, we bring the action to the fans and everybody. I, in my heart, know it’s only going to get more difficult as time goes on.”

New Sponsor Ahead for Truck Series
NASCAR has begun marketing an entitlement sponsorship of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series beginning with the 2009 season.

This follows a decision by Sears that its Craftsman brand will forgo its sponsorship rights following this year.

“Craftsman has been a great, longstanding partner and intends to remain in the sport,” says Steve Phelps, NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer, in a joint announcement with Sears. “The current series name will continue through the 2008 season with the same great commitment Craftsman has demonstrated throughout its 13-year history as the series’ entitlement sponsor.”

“Craftsman has been the sponsor of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series since its inception in 1995, and since then we have developed strong relationships with millions of loyal NASCAR fans we value greatly,” says Scott Howard, manager of marketing partnerships for Sears. “While we will be relinquishing title sponsorship of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series at the end of 2008, we continue to explore new opportunities within NASCAR.”

The series wrapped up a successful 13th season of 25 races at 22 tracks in 19 states from coast to coast. Ron Hornaday Jr. won his third series championship.