Johnson celebrates title in style
LAS VEGAS (AP)
Jimmie Johnson is celebrating again at NASCAR's annual awards party while some of his biggest competitors are beginning to pick up the pieces following the tense race for the title.
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus began collecting their prizes Thursday for their record fifth straight championship, reveling just a few feet away from a heartbroken Denny Hamlin. The runner-up to Johnson in the championship race lost the title in the season finale.
And scattered throughout the banquet hall was much of Hendrick Motorsports, which underwent a massive personnel shakeup just two days after Johnson gave the organization its record 10th championship.
It made for a series of sideshows outside of Johnson's spotlight, none more glaring than Hamlin, who has somberly made his way from event to event silently dealing with his disappointment.
''Man, I feel for him. I know how much it hurts to come so close,'' said Johnson, who sent Hamlin a ''chin up'' text the day after the Nov. 21 season finale.
Winning car owner Rick Hendrick sat one table over from Hamlin during Thursday's annual awards luncheon, and felt the need to offer the rival driver some words of comfort at the end of the afternoon.
''I told him you will win your share, so you shouldn't be beating yourself up so bad,'' Hendrick said. ''I've lost these things myself and I know what that feels like. It needs to motivate you to come back and you need to bury this and move on.
''I'm glad I spoke to him. I saw him, he looked like he needed a friend, and I told him `We're proud of you, and you did a heck of a job. It's a shame anybody had to lose.' Now he's got to learn not to let it bother him this long.''
Easier said than done for Hamlin, who blew a 15-point lead in the finale. The top prize was his for the taking, but setbacks in the final two races cost him his first NASCAR championship.
He was poised to finish no lower than second at Phoenix, and possibly take a lead of as much as 60 points into the finale, until poor fuel mileage on the last run dropped him to 12th. Then came Homestead, where he began his weekend with a poor qualifying run and early contact with Greg Biffle during the race set the tone for an overall bad day.
It dropped Hamlin, winner of eight races this year, from becoming the guy to unseat Johnson to just another driver who fell short.
''I can't express the emotion I felt inside the car every single lap that we were about to make something happen that hadn't been done in a while. But then when it all gets crushed at the end,'' he said Thursday.
The heartbreak has silenced Hamlin on Twitter, where he actively engaged with fans, questioned NASCAR and challenged his competitors, and spoiled his mood in one of his favorite cities. He took charge last season in Las Vegas, throwing an elaborate post-banquet party in which he openly told Johnson that he'd be the driver celebrating in 2010.
Now he's just trying to get through the week and go back home to North Carolina, where he plans to put the season behind him.
''Just every award (Johnson) accepts, everything you think, `I should have been in that position,''' Hamlin said. ''It's more thinking about the what ifs. I feel once I leave Vegas, I've got to worry about next year. I haven't thought about next year. I knew this weekend was coming, so after this weekend, I was going to move on. I've just got two more days of it.''
But next year is already underway at Hendrick Motorsports, which announced a three-driver shuffle last week.
The move put slumping Dale Earnhardt Jr. with crew chief Steve Letarte, where the duo will work in the same building with Johnson and Knaus. Although many believe the sweeping changes were made to snap Earnhardt's two-year winless streak, Hendrick actually believed his entire organization needed a shakeup.
Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin also were winless, and that wasn't acceptable a mere year after Johnson, Martin and Gordon led an unprecedented sweep of the top three spots in the final standings.
Now Gordon will work with Alan Gustafson, while Martin moves to Lance McGrew.
''We needed a new direction and I am assuming once all the heads came to the table, there were other people needing a new direction or seeking more success in some way,'' said Earnhardt, who picked up his eighth consecutive Most Popular Driver award Thursday.
Gordon praised his time with Letarte, but seemed excited to be paired with Gustafson, who guided Martin to his runner-up finish in 2009.
''I feel really good about what we're doing,'' Gordon said. ''Loved working with Steve, he's been awesome, but I think this is a move that can elevate our whole organization. That's what I'm excited about.''