HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Jimmie Johnson won his second consecutive NASCAR Nextel Cup championship by driving a conservative, incident-free race and finishing seventh behind winner Matt Kenseth in the season finale yesterday.
Kenseth, perhaps the second-hottest driver behind Johnson in recent weeks, was dominant in winning the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he led 214 of the 267 laps.
Johnson's title capped one of the strongest seasons for a NASCAR driver in the sport's modern era.
The El Cajon, Calif., native came to Florida with a four-race winning streak and an 86-point lead in the title standings over Jeff Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Johnson, 32, needed to finish only 18th or better to win the Cup.
"Everything came together; we're rocking," Johnson said after driving his No. 48 Chevrolet into victory lane.
"I've been so blessed; it's just awesome stuff," said Johnson, who started on the pole. "I can't go without also thanking Jeff Gordon ... for being a great friend, a great teammate."
Gordon was in the top 10 for most of the race, which started in the late afternoon and ended under the lights. But he never led a lap on the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami oval and finished fourth, ending the season 77 points behind Johnson.
The Chase was a stinging disappointment for Gordon, 36, who won six races this year and had a huge lead in the Cup series points when the Chase began.
But all of the contenders' points are reset for the Chase, and Gordon couldn't catch Johnson, who finished with 10 wins this year - the most since Gordon won 13 in 1998.
"It really was an amazing year for me," Gordon said. "I'm a competitor. I'm very happy for Jimmie and those guys, but I really wanted it for our team. It's nothing for us to hang our heads about."
In yesterday's race, Kurt Busch was second for Penske Racing South, and Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing was third. Both were among those in the Chase, but only Johnson and Gordon were mathematically eligible to win the title.
Kenseth's victory was his second of the year - his first came in February at California Speedway - and it capped his strong late-season comeback.
The Wisconsin native quickly fell from title contention in the first half of the Chase and was last among the 12 drivers in the playoff.
But he finished in the top five in the final five races and surged to fourth in the standings.
"It's pretty awesome to get up to fourth from where we were five weeks ago," said Kenseth, 35. "It feels good to pull it off. We've lost some close ones this year."
Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career driving the red No. 8 Chevrolet came to an ignominious end.
Earnhardt was going too fast as he approached the pits for his first stop early in the race. He swerved right off the pit-road apron to slow down, then was hit from behind by Kyle Busch, spinning Earnhardt into the wall.
Then, on the restart, Earnhardt again was hit from behind, this time by Jeff Burton. That sent Earnhardt hard into the wall a second time, and he finished 36th after repairs.
It was Earnhardt's last race for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team started by his late father; he's moving next year to Hendrick. Coincidentally, Busch - who finished 20th yesterday - was released by Hendrick to make room for Earnhardt.
Jim Peltz writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Final point standings
1. Jimmie Johnson 6,723
2. Jeff Gordon 6,646
3. Clint Bowyer 6,377
4. Matt Kenseth 6,298
5. Kyle Busch 6,293
6. Tony Stewart 6,242
7. Kurt Busch 6,231
8. Jeff Burton 6,231
9. Carl Edwards 6,222
10. Kevin Harvick 6,199
11. Martin Truex Jr. 6,164
12. Denny Hamlin 6,143
Past 12 champions
2007 Jimmie Johnson
2006 Jimmie Johnson
2005 Tony Stewart
2004 Kurt Busch
2003 Matt Kenseth
2002 Tony Stewart
2001 Jeff Gordon
2000 Bobby Labonte
1999 Dale Jarrett
1998 Jeff Gordon
1997 Jeff Gordon
1996 Terry Labonte