The Associated Press
HOMESTEAD, FLA. - Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus never slowed down enough to consider what a record-tying third consecutive championship would mean to their legacy.
Don't count on them doing it now.
After tying Cale Yarborough's 30-year mark as the only driver with three straight championships, Johnson and his crew chief were already thinking about going after No. 4.
"I could go race again next week and start the season and go for four," Johnson said after Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "It's on our minds. It's not that we're chasing a number, we just know what we're capable of. We know we can do better. It's a search to do the best we can."
Knaus, the first crew chief in series history to win three straight, even offered to report to work Monday morning to start their pursuit.
He was only partly kidding.
"We want four. Why not? That's why we're here," Knaus said. "We can definitely bid for four. Give me a reason why not."
Carl Edwards could certainly offer a reason or two after winning Sunday's Ford 400 -- his series-best ninth victory of the season -- only to fall 69 points short of wresting the Sprint Cup trophy away from Johnson. Edwards led a race-high 157 laps, and won despite running out of gas as he crossed the finish line.
Johnson won the title by finishing 15th.
"We won more races than Jimmie (seven), and we ran with him when he won," Edwards said. "I know they'll enjoy this championship, but they knew we were here."
Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team have mastered the Chase to the championship system, proving themselves unbeatable in their pursuit of Yarborough's mark. They've won their titles with consistency -- he finished outside the top 10 just twice in this Chase, a 15th-place finish at Texas -- and by winning eight of the last 30 Chase races.
They've also gotten very rich along the way: Johnson has won more than $2 million in the 10 Chase races this year. Yarborough earned a combined $1.63 million in all three of his championship seasons.
Although the industry was keenly aware of its front-row seat to history, the celebration seemed subdued because of the economic crisis that's finally found its way to NASCAR. The Big Three automakers are crumbling, car owners are struggling to find sponsorship, and widespread layoffs are expected today, when teams could combine to let go of up to 1,000 employees.
Johnson struggled at the start of the year in adapting to the full-time use of NASCAR's current car, so he and Knaus embarked on an aggressive testing schedule that helped them catch the competition by late summer.
By the time the Chase began in September, Johnson drove right past them.
Edwards pushed it to the limit Sunday, knowing he had to win the race, lead the most laps and pray for Johnson to have some trouble to win his first title. But he was a gracious runner-up, and after his trademark celebratory back flip, he walked over to Johnson's passing car on the track to congratulate him.
"At least we can lay our heads down tonight and know we won some races and just got beaten by a true champion," Edwards said.
Edwards' win chopped 72 points off Johnson's margin.
Kevin Harvick finished second and was followed by Jamie McMurray and Jeff Gordon, who finished the year winless for the first time since his 1993 rookie season.
Published: Monday, November 17, 2008