By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing
NEW YORK -- Minutes into NASCAR's annual industry luncheon, the driver known as "Four Time" spotted teammate Jimmie Johnson at the next table.
"What's up champ?" Jeff Gordon whispered, reaching across to shake Johnson's hand. "Two-Time now. Two-time."
Despite losing the fight for the Nextel Cup title, Gordon is very much enjoying Johnson's second consecutive championship. The Hendrick Motorsports drivers waged a fierce competition all season, but Johnson used an unbelievable late push to handily defend his title while denying Gordon a fifth one.
But Gordon showed no signs of bitterness Thursday when the 12 title contending drivers gathered at Cipriani's to pick up their end of the season awards.
"Jimmie and I finished 1-2 and that was obviously a tremendous year for Hendrick Motorsports," he said. "It's certainly not something that I am going to hang my head about. I had a great year."
A record-setting year, actually.
Gordon notched a record 30 top-10 finishes in the 36 points races, while winning six times and building a lead of more than 300 points during the "regular season." And if NASCAR still had the same scoring system it used during Gordon's first four titles, he would have locked down the championship with two weeks to go in the season.
But under the new Chase for the championship format, the field was reset for the final 10 races and 12 eligible drivers battled for the title. Gordon jumped out to an early lead with two Chase victories and a stellar 5.1 average finish.
Johnson was just a notch better, though, and reeled off four straight wins to grab the title away. His average finish was 5.0. It was a run reminiscent of Gordon's early days, when he dominated the series and won everything in sight.
And in becoming the first driver since Gordon to win consecutive titles and notch double-digit wins (10) in a season, Johnson is tugging at Gordon's hold on the role of the best active driver.
The two headed into the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with Johnson needing a collapse to lose the title.
"The only way we were going to win it in Homestead was for Jimmie and those guys to have problems, and there's nothing worse than going into a race and know that unless they have trouble -- and you don't want to wish that on anybody," he said. "I want to win that championship by beating those guys, and the truth of the matter is they beat us when it counted."
Gordon said the days after the penultimate race at Phoenix, when he realized Johnson would win the title, were the toughest of the season for him. But when the disappointment subsided, he was able to view every one of Johnson's feats as accomplishments that strengthen Hendrick Motorsports.
Instead of ruing the day he lobbied team owner Rick Hendrick to hire Johnson, Gordon is focusing on the overall operation at Hendrick, which won 18 races this year between its four drivers. Casey Mears and Kyle Busch each won once.
"This year was by far the best year I've seen all four Hendrick cars performing together, working together and communicating the way they did," Gordon said. "It was the best, and the results showed it and it speaks volumes of what kind of organization we have."
Hendrick certainly cashed in Thursday, when Johnson and Gordon claimed most of the major awards. Each one came with a hefty payday -- Gordon's four awards totaled almost $400,000 -- and the two drivers dutifully handed over their envelopes to Hendrick during the ceremony. The car owner showed no reaction as he quietly placed the thick stack in his suit pocket.
The car owner is looking to continue the success next season. The team will have a different look as Dale Earnhardt Jr. replaces Busch in the organization, but there's been no indication the team will have any dropoff.
Gordon either. A leading trade magazine told Gordon on Thursday it has rated him the No. 1 driver going into next season, an honor Gordon doesn't think he's earned.
"I wouldn't consider myself the favorite," he said. "I don't see how ... looking at how this season ended up, going into next season, I don't see how you can not pick Jimmie. If I was going to do a ranking, we'd be head-to-head, it would be very, very tight, very close.
"But if I was picking it, I would certainly pick Jimmie."