HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Jimmie Johnson, on the verge of a NASCAR record fourth consecutive championship, signed a contract extension Friday to drive for Hendrick Motorsports through the 2015 season.
The announcement comes just two days before Johnson is likely to wrap up the Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson goes into Sunday's finale with a 108-point lead over Hendrick teammate Mark Martin and needs only to finish 25th or better to win the title.
"Jimmie is charting new territory in our sport, and that's due to a combination of natural talent and unsurpassed work ethic," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "How he's committed himself is just incredible, and it shows in everything that he does - not just on the racetrack.
"There's no question that he's one of the great champions in all of sports, and he's not done yet."
Johnson's previous contract expired after the 2010 season. This is his third contract extension since joining Hendrick in 2001. Home improvement chain Lowe's also signed an extension as primary sponsor of Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet through the 2013 season.
There was no immediate announcement on crew chief Chad Knaus, who has previously extended his contracts to stay in line with Johnson. But Hendrick said talks have begun with Knaus and they are "in the process of putting it on paper."
Knaus' current contract is through the 2010 season, and he and Johnson have been partnered since Johnson's 2002 rookie year.
"I think our goal and everybody's on the same page, keeping this thing together for the foreseeable future," Hendrick said.
The Johnson extension locks up Hendrick's lineup in the Cup Series for the next several years.
Gordon wants to keep driving for Hendrick. Jeff Gordon still has Cup title No. 5 in sight. And his boss expects Gordon to stick around a few more years to try and win at least one more.
Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick waved off any idea that Gordon's career was nearing the finish line. Hendrick, who locked up three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson through the 2015 season on Friday, said he expected Gordon to drive at least "three or four" more seasons before retiring.
Hendrick has long said Gordon has a "lifetime" contract with Hendrick Motorsports.
"As long as he's going to drive in Cup, he's going to drive in our car," Hendrick said. "I'm hoping he's going to drive a bunch of more years."
Gordon said on Friday that his chronic back pain has improved and he's still having fun racing. Gordon is third in the points standings and has one victory this season heading into Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"As long as I'm healthy and competitive and we have sponsorship, we're out there enjoying ourselves, I'm going to keep doing it," Gordon said.
The 38-year-old Gordon won the last of his four titles in 2001 and hasn't won a Cup championship since the Chase for the championship format started in 2004.
"I think the old points system favors us," Gordon said. "But I'm more inspired than ever with the new system to win it under the new format."
RPM driver Kahne will look elsewhere after 2010. Kasey Kahne might be maxed out at RPM.
Kahne is considering bolting Richard Petty Motorsports after his contract expires next season because of the instability surrounding the organization and will start shopping around for a new team in January.
Kahne has been disgruntled with many parts of RPM this season, including a planned merger with Yates Racing that has yet to happen. Kahne says the company needs to become focused and resolve its lingering issues in the offseason.
"The ups and downs of the team has made it difficult for me to really say, 'Man, I'm going to be here for 10 years,'" Kahne said Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "I really don't know what's going to happen."
Kahne said he has not heard from majority owner George Gillett Jr. about a new contract.
Johnson takes pole at Homestead
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AP Photo HMS116, HMS117, HMS109
By DAN GELSTON
AP Sports Writer
HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) - Jimmie Johnson's run for his fourth straight Cup title starts from the pole.
Johnson turned a lap of 173.919 mph on Friday to top qualifying at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a big boost for the Hendrick Motorsports star as he tries to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win four consecutive championships.
"We did an awesome job today, and I feel that the start will go smoothly," Johnson said.
The start could be tricky for the unflappable Johnson. Scott Speed qualified second and Marcos Ambrose third, two drivers who haven't spent very much time on the track racing up front and around Johnson.
Johnson crashed on the third lap at Texas two races ago when he was hit by Sam Hornish - another non-Chase contender. The wreck spoiled Johnson's shot at possibly clinching his unprecedented fourth straight championship last week.
Speed and Ambrose don't want to be the drivers who take out Johnson and forever are tagged as the ones who spoiled history.
"Certainly you don't want to be the guy that takes out the 48," Speed said. "That doesn't look good on your resume. You give him room, you race him as hard as you can."
Ambrose, who has only six top-10 starts this season, has a similar fear.
"You don't want to be the guy that does that to him," he said. "He's not going to do it on his own."
Johnson said the Texas wreck has made him somewhat apprehensive that a similar scare could happen again. He did not return to the track in that race until lap 115 in a rebuilt car. If he's knocked out early in Sunday's 400-mile event, his title hopes could be on the ropes and Mark Martin could have some new life as he shoots for his first championship.
"I typically wouldn't be (worried), but with living through the Texas experience, I'm not taking anything for granted," Johnson said. "I'm happy to hear that both Marcos and Scott recognize what's going on. Those guys have both raced for championships. They know what it's like to get to that final race and you want that halo, you want that space."
Johnson won his fourth pole of the season in the No. 48 Chevrolet hours after it was announced he signed a contract extension to drive for Hendrick Motorsports through the 2015 season. He has 23 career poles in 291 Cup races.
Johnson was so pumped at taking the pole he yelled, "Yes! Yes! Yes! Wow!" over his radio. Crew chief Chad Knaus told him, "God, I love you."
Johnson goes into Sunday's Chase for the championship finale with a 108-point lead over Martin and needs only to finish 25th or better to win the title.
He's not looking for any driver to concede the title to him.
"Everybody needs to race because we're all here for a reason," Johnson said. "Everybody is trying to finish as strong as they can. It's not, let's not race. It's, let's race, but let's just give each other a little bit more room."
Martin and Tony Stewart round out the top five.
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who still has second place within reach, qualified 20th. Johnson, Martin and Gordon are trying to give Hendrick Motorsports a 1-2-3 finish in the season points standings.
Max Papis, David Stremme, Dave Blaney, Joe Nemechek and Mike Skinner failed to qualify.