Nascar Was A Family Affair In 2007

MOORESVILLE, North Carolina (Ticker) - While Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon kept it all in the Hendrick Motorsports family in the battle for the 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup championship, it was a family feud involving the Earnhardts that may have left a lasting impact on the season.

Johnson won the title for the second straight year, finding his pace in The Chase to take away the title from Gordon, who from start-to-finish would have easily won his fifth Cup title if not for The Chase.

But when NASCAR instituted it's quasi-playoff system in 2004, it drastically changed the rules of engagement for winning a championship.

So as Gordon was racking up a lead over 350 points, he started the first race of The Chase second in the standings because Johnson had more wins in the 26-race "regular season." That was a new twist added to 10-race battle for the title that was expanded to 12 drivers in 2007.

Gordon regained the top spot early in The Chase and appeared in control of his fifth Cup title at the midway point as he led Johnson with five races left in the season.

That was before Johnson started an impressive championship run that included four wins in a row to give him an 86-point lead over Gordon entering the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Johnson would finish seventh while Gordon was fourth. Johnson became the 15th driver to win multiple championships in NASCAR's top series and it's the 14th time in history that a driver has won back-to-back titles. That includes Cale Yarborough, who won three championships in a row from 1976-78.

Johnson also became the first driver to win back-to-back Cup titles since Gordon in 1997-98 and his 10 victories were the most for a Cup driver since Gordon won 13 in 1998.

It was also team owner Rick Hendrick's seventh Cup title, second only to Petty Enterprises with nine championships.

Hendrick has won championships with three different drivers including Jeff Gordon (1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001), Terry Labonte (1996) and Johnson (2006 and 2007).

"This has been an unbelievable example of teamwork and dedication," Hendrick said. "Jimmie had been phenomenal."

Gordon and Johnson share an unusual relationship. Not only are both teammates at Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon is listed as co-owner of Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet and the two consider themselves friends.

In fact, it was Gordon that helped convince Hendrick to give Johnson a ride when he was just an unheralded Busch Series driver from El Cajon, California in 2000.

Hendrick put a sponsorship package together in 2001 while Johnson spent a season with Herzog Motorsports and moved up to Cup in 2002.

Since that time, Johnson has had an incredible career and has arguably displaced Gordon as the top driver at Hendrick Motorsports.

"From my standpoint inside the car, I know who I'm racing against," Johnson said. "And I knew that I had to get on a tear like I did this season. I had to win races to stand a chance to beat Jeff Gordon, just plain and simple.

"The dynamic between the 24 (Gordon) and 48 (Johnson) teams has been phenomenal."

The outcome left Gordon exasperated that his outstanding season did not give him his first Cup title since 2001.

"It's bittersweet," Gordon said. "We had a great year with top 10s and top fives and got beat. It's an awesome year but we got beat. It will make us hungrier this off-season. Let's get them next year. We do things a little different than Jimmie but we should have gotten a little more aggressive sooner this year.

"Jimmie and those guys were a little more aggressive than we were. Looking back on it we should have got more aggressive. We'll go to work in January."

When Gordon and Johnson return to their race cars in early January for preseason testing at Daytona International Speedway, they will be joined by a new teammate, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

He is NASCAR's most popular driver despite his lack of productivity on the race track, and had another tumultuous season that included leaving his race team at Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI).

That team was started by his father, the late Dale Earnhardt, but after his death in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, Teresa Earnhardt took over control of the team.

Young Earnhardt and his stepmother experienced a degree of success earlier, including Earnhardt winning the 2004 Daytona 500.

But Earnhardt never seriously contended for a Nextel Cup title during his tenure at DEI and prior to the start of the 2007 season, Teresa Earnhardt was quoted in the Wall Street Journal that Dale Jr. needed to decide if he wanted to be a celebrity or a race driver.

Earnhardt's contract was up at DEI and it started a chain of events that led to the driver announcing in May that he would leave the team at the end of this season.

While drivers are the race track were battling for race victories and championships, race fans were more interested in wondering which team would get Earnhardt.

That was answered in mid-June when Earnhardt announced he would join Hendrick Motorsports that already includes Gordon, Johnson and Casey Mears.

Earnhardt believed a fresh start was vital to his career and his new ride will be without longtime sponsor Budweiser. Earnhardt will be sponsored by Mountain Dew, AMP Energy Drink and the National Guard in 2008.

Once the Earnhardt Family "Soap Opera" concluded, Earnhardt completed an unspectacular season without winning a race.

But that didn't keep his huge legion of fans from calling it the "End of an Era" at DEI.

"It makes me feel good that people even call it an era," Earnhardt said. "I had a lot of great wins with that car and a lot of great friendships made with that group.

"The hardest part for me this weekend is knowing that when I walk into the garage for my first practice in Daytona, most of them faces won't be in that stall with me. That's really, really hard because I really like all those guys and feel like they're my brothers and we all really got along great. I didn't see that sort of camaraderie through other teams."

He also was saddened by the move in regard to his father's vision.

"I will be sad for my father that things aren't different," Earnhardt said. "I'm sad for him, not for me or anybody else. I'm just sad because his vision was different.

"He was such a great person and his visions were great and worthy and should be realized. That'll be a shame."

There were other issues that were noteworthy during the 2007 NASCAR season. Television ratings and attendance continued to decline as the sport settles in to its natural pecking order on the sporting landscape but sponsorship interest continues to be high.

NASCAR also unveiled the "Car of Tomorrow" which is a boxier, more uniform car that is designed to create closer racing and contain costs for team owners while including more safety features.

The car was met with mixed results as many drivers complained it was much more difficult to pass another car with the COT and made for even more "single-file" racing.

Kyle Busch won the first race with the new COT at Bristol Motor Speedway in March and said it drove like a "Milk Crate."

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