The Joy Of Six

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Like a proud father of multiple children, every one of Rick Hendrick's six NEXTEL Cup Series championships is special.

But Jimmie Johnson's 2006 title may stand out a little more in Hendrick's mind.

"All of them are special and I've been very fortunate to have great talent in the cars and I think it's a credit to the organization for trying to put good cars together," Hendrick said. "But the way that the organization has worked together, all of the teams working together I think has proved this year with everybody winning the race, everybody winning a pole, and Jimmie has driven at track meetings with the drivers, crew chiefs, and even made the whole deal stronger."

Johnson's championship did cap another banner year for the Hendrick organization, but it was anything but an easy route to get there.

"This team has really come into its own over the last year," crew chief Chad Knaus said. "I just couldn't be prouder. We had to battle back from a lot of weird stuff this year, and they held strong."

The season's "weird stuff" began at Daytona, when Knaus was suspended for four races after the No. 48 car was caught cheating in post-qualifying inspection for the Daytona 500.

Undaunted, Johnson went on to win the 500 as well as the race two weeks later at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with interim crew chief Darian Grubb calling the shots.

Knaus came back and Johnson scored wins in Charlotte, Indianapolis and Martinsville.

And although Johnson stumbled into the "Chase," he rallied tremendously in the second half of the championship season to earn the elusive first title.

The success will bring obvious comparisons to other Hendrick title-winning drivers and crew chiefs, including four-time champ Jeff Gordon and then chief Ray Evernham.

"I think Ray and Jeff were a great combination," Hendrick said. "But the sport is tougher right now. It's more competitive. With the 'Chase' format, you know, putting the ten guys back together and reshuffling the deck, it's going to be harder to win championships.

"I'm not saying it was easy back when Jeff and Terry (Labonte) won and Ray and Jeff had that run. But to be as competitive as these guys are week-in and week-out with the garage area as tough as it is today and the points system like it is, I think they are as good as I've ever seen."

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