Originally created 11/22/06

Wreck altered champ's course



Jimmie Johnson's racing goals were a bit different before being stranded in 1994 in the Baja desert.

Until then, the Southern California 19-year-old, was content to run off-road races and, maybe some day, win the Baja 1000 or an off-road title.

Stuck for a day and a half in the rocky no-man's-land after driving off a ridge, Johnson revised his plans.

"I decided to go a different direction, maybe see what else there was out there in the racing world," Johnson said.

Johnson made a connection with then-Chevrolet racing boss Herb Fishel that eventually landed him in NASCAR's Busch Series, where he was spotted by Nextel Cup star Jeff Gordon. He introduced Johnson to team owner Rick Hendrick and became co-owner in 2002 with Hendrick of Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet.

Johnson quickly became known as the best NASCAR driver not to have won a Cup title.

He insists he never let the onus of having lost two championships before weigh him down, and crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the team never let up.

"I don't see (being a perennial contender) as a burden, and I don't think anyone on our race team does," Johnson said after wrapping up his first Nextel Cup championship Sunday with a ninth-place finish that followed five consecutive top-two performances.

"It's our fifth season together," he continued. "People thought and expected a lot out of us as a race team from the beginning. We never felt a burden."

Before Sunday's triumph, Johnson came close three times.

Johnson said he and his team were prepared for any eventuality Sunday, knowing a flat tire, an engine failure or a wreck would keep people talking.