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Jimmie Johnson wins third straight NASCAR Sprint Cup title

Jimmie Johnson gets ready for a low-key celebration after finishing 15th in the season-ending Sprint Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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Jimmie Johnson gets ready for a low-key celebration after finishing 15th in the season-ending Sprint Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

HOMESTEAD — Jimmie Johnson raced like he was chasing a legacy instead of checkered flags. And he didn't look like he was ready to stop, not even after reaching the finish line on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Johnson joined Cale Yar­borough as NASCAR drivers to win three consecutive titles, easily holding off race-winner Carl Edwards to capture the Sprint Cup championship by 69 points. And he seemed in a hurry to begin the pursuit for a fourth.

"It's not that we're chasing a number," he said. "We know what we're capable of."

Johnson needed only to finish 36th Sunday to claim the title. Starting 30th, he could have Sunday-driven around the 1.5-mile speedway, avoided trouble and clicked off laps. But Johnson picked through the field with the help of two strategic pit stops, led briefly and finished 15th.

Crew chief Chad Knaus opted to relinquish a top five standing with 13 laps left to "have enough fuel for a burnout" and Johnson drifted his No. 48 Chevrolet through a throng of onlookers and into the championship stage to lift the trophy yet again.

"It just hasn't sunk in yet," Johnson said, adding that the experience of the previous two titles eased his path to the third. So did a stout car and a hefty 141-point lead he had going into the race.

Edwards, who began requesting updates on Johnson from crew chief Bob Osborne by Lap 40, milked a 13-second lead at the end and won a series-best ninth race on a fuel gamble. It was Edwards' third win in the past four weeks and the fifth consecutive at Homestead for Roush Fenway Racing. He led a race-high 157 laps.

Kevin Harvick was second on vapors, 7.548 seconds back, followed by Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer.

Johnson's crossing of the finish line set off a businesslike celebration much more muted than the past two.

"How does it feel to be part of history, boys?" he crowed over the team radio.

That could be an open-ended question. Johnson, 33, seems to be getting stronger, winning this title by the second-largest margin in Chase history. His 40 Cup wins are the most in the series — by a large margin — since his rookie year in 2002 and he's one title away from tying the career total of teammate Jeff Gordon, a 17-year veteran.

Gordon is second only to Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, who won seven. That is the target, eventually, and Knaus is unapologetic about it.

"Yeah, we want four," Knaus said. "Why not? That's why we're here. The team we got, the resources we got, we can definitely go bid for four in a row. Give me a reason why not."

Edwards, though cordial with Johnson, would relish the chance to disappoint them.

"Jimmie has the chance to make some real history next year," he said. "I would be glad to be the guy to deny him the chance.

"Second place in the championship isn't what we came here for, but Jimmie is a great guy and he deserves to win. I know they'll enjoy this championship, but they knew we were here."

Johnson's championships —he's just the eighth to win three or more — are not merely about quantity. Yarborough won his three straight in an era when a handful of drivers could legitimately expect to contend for championships. The Sprint Cup garage is flush with such teams now, all utilizing squadrons of engineers and rocket-science technology to find the nanometer's worth of information to bring Johnson down.

"I don't think he's gotten the respect he deserves," said team owner Rick Hendrick, who won his eighth title in the past 14 years. "I think this is really serving notice of what he's done.''

Brant James can be reached at (352) 584-0633 or james@sptimes.com

Jimmie Johnson wins third straight NASCAR Sprint Cup title 11/16/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 17, 2008 7:22am]
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