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NASCAR year belongs to Junior, Jeff and Jimmie
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - From Junior to Jeff and Jimmie, the 2007 Nextel Cup season belonged to three different drivers for very different reasons.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. waged a public battle with his stepmother for control of his late father's company, and when his coup failed, he became the hottest free agent in NASCAR history. His decisions started a domino effect, and the winners and losers won't be known for years.

Junior eventually settled on mighty Hendrick Motorsports, where he'll join a team that won 18 of 36 races this season and its seventh Nextel Cup title. The move has put pressure on NASCAR's most popular driver to finally deliver his first championship, and on Rick Hendrick to make sure it happens without disrupting the balance of the most powerful team ever assembled.

"I think the pressure's on me, because of his fan base expecting him to do well," Hendrick said. "If he does well, it's because of his talent. If he doesn't, it's going to be my fault. That's kind of the way it works when you have multiple cars ... and I'm looking forward to the challenge."

Junior will get support from Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who dominated this season like no duo ever had.

Johnson led the way with 10 victories and an incredible performance during the Chase for the championship that culminated in his second straight championship. Gordon finished second, with six wins and a record 30 top-10 finishes.

"We knew we couldn't put our guards down. We knew who we were racing and the team and the track are better than anyone else out there, and they had an amazing year," Johnson said. "And we knew we had to fight to the very end to get this thing done."

Although he came up just short, Gordon proved he's still among the best after 16 seasons in NASCAR's top series. He also showed class in defeat, celebrating Johnson's success, even though it spoiled what should have been a career year for the four-time series champion.

In addition to passing Dale Earnhardt on NASCAR's career victories list this season, Gordon found off-track happiness with the June birth of his daughter. It gave him a balance he had been missing during the heyday of his career.

"When you go through becoming a first-time father, there is nothing that's going to top that. It is the ultimate," Gordon said. "I've won championships before ... (and) I know that even that can't top becoming a dad and that whole experience."

While Junior, Jeff and Jimmie certainly dominated the headlines, they hardly stole the show:

• The season opened with a cheating scandal at the Daytona 500 - five teams were caught with unapproved modifications on their cars - including Michael Waltrip, who had an illegal substance in his engine. It set the tone for a strict NASCAR crackdown on cheating, and the sanctioning body showed little mercy when it came to its Car of Tomorrow.

NASCAR phased in its CoT this season, and it's unclear if the car will indeed reduce costs, foster better racing and improve safety. The only thing that's certain is that NASCAR won't tolerate modifications to it, as many crew chiefs learned this season through lengthy suspensions and stiff fines.

• Waltrip never recovered from the Daytona scandal, and it started a long and troubling year for Toyota in its first season in NASCAR's top series. The two-time Daytona 500 winner struggled to make races - he qualified for just 14 of 36 - and the other Camry pilots struggled, too.

Of the seven full-time teams, Dave Blaney's 31st-place finish was the highest. But the Japanese automaker should crack the winner's circle next season with the addition of Joe Gibbs Racing and drivers Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.

• Busch, despite tremendous talent and a long future ahead of him, found himself out of a job at Hendrick Motorsports when Junior became available. Almost every team in the garage wanted the temperamental 22-year-old, and he picked Gibbs, where the driver stable can be a bit emotionally unstable.