Jimmie Johnson has been named as Sporting News
magazine's driver of the year, after becoming only the second driver to win three consecutive NASCAR Cup Series championships.
Having been quiet heading into the Chase for the Championship 'play-offs', Johnson finished the 2008 season 69 points ahead of Carl Edwards to join Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to win three consecutive championships in NASCAR's premier division, and his achievement - and those of his Hendrick Motorsports team - were rewarded with three of the five annual Sporting News
As well as Johnson's title, Rick Hendrick was named owner of the year and Chad Knaus crew chief of the year, the latter after becoming the first crew chief to win three consecutive championships. Dale Earnhardt Inc's Regan Smith won the rookie of the year nomination, while Roush Fenway Racing's Edwards - who won a series-high nine races and finished second in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series - earned the Dale Earnhardt Tough Driver award. All awards were determined by votes cast by Sprint Cup drivers, crew chiefs and owners.
Johnson won seven races, including three during the final ten races that make up the Chase, taking him to a record 14 victories in 50 Chase races. The last of those victories was the 40th of his career and came in his 254th start, tying Darrell Waltrip for third-fastest to the 40-win mark. Only Herb Thomas (151 races) and Hendrick team-mate and mentor Jeff Gordon (186) did it in fewer.
Knaus and Johnson have been together since 2002, Johnson's rookie season, and have earned both their success and acclaim in tandem.
“The guy [Knaus] is a star in his own right,” said Jeff Hammond, who was crew chief for two of Darrell Waltrip's three championships, “His credentials are impeccable. His success is phenomenal.”
Johnson's championship gave Hendrick his eighth Cup title, and three Hendrick drivers made the Chase for the third straight season. Gordon finished seventh and new signing Dale Earnhardt Jr twelfth in the expanded post-season group. In each of the past six seasons, Hendrick drivers have won at least eight races. No other current team has had more than two consecutive eight-win seasons.
Smith completed his season without a DNF, a remarkable accomplishment for a rookie, and, although he was winless, he did take the chequered flag first in one race, at Talladega in October. Having made a bold pass on leader Tony Stewart just before the finish line, however, NASCAR ruled the pass illegal because Smith went below the yellow line that divides the track from the apron to complete the move. Stewart, who many feel left the rookie no option to dip below the line, eventually got the win, while Smith was demoted to 18th.
Alongside Johnson, Edwards was the other star of the Chase, winning three of the final four races. His aggressive style won him notice among past champions, who said he would have done well in their era.
“He's a hard charger, and I think he would have done real good,” 1960 champion Rex White claimed, while seven-time champion Richard Petty also had kind words for the Roush Fenway pilot.
“Carl and [Dale] Earnhardt were both fierce competitors, but Carl's a lot more finesse than Dale was. That's just the style.”