Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s team continue to build on the most dominating streak in NASCAR history.
Johnson’s second-place finish, combined with Kevin Harvick’s third and Denny Hamlin’s 14th, propelled him to a record fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And this one may have been the most impressive yet.
Johnson entered the Ford 400 a slim 15 points behind Hamlin in the championship standings. And thanks to a sixth-place qualifying run, Johnson was able to survive two slow pit stops to hang in the top 10 throughout the race. In fact, Friday’s qualifying efforts played a major, if not overlooked, role. With Harvick starting 28th and Hamlin 37th, the two were placed in a points hole from which neither could climb out.
Hamlin did himself no favors once the green fell, either. His day was wrought with mistakes, the most costly being a lap 24 spin that damaged his front splitter and knocked the toe out. He battled a perpetually loose condition for the remainder of the afternoon, cracking the top 10 briefly, but never mounting a charge to the top 5.
Harvick, who entered the race a daunting 46 points out of the Chase lead, staged a more serious threat to Johnson. While never able to consistently run in the top three, Harvick was a fifth- to ninth-place challenger. But as the race drew to its conclusion, Harvick’s aggression spiked, as he spun Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, and got nabbed for speeding on pit road.
The Harvick/Busch incident occurred while green flag stops cycled through, and briefly trapped Hamlin one lap down. It led to a testy exchange between the two in the media center after the race.
"I thought it was over when the 18 wrecked, for sure," Hamlin said. "That trapped us a lap down. The 29 and the 48 were actually just a straightaway ahead, but the way it timed out to when that caution fell, it trapped us a lap down, and so they stayed out and the cars at the back all came and got tires, so it separated us. What was a straightaway turned into 15 spots when that caution flew, and that really hurt us quite a bit."
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"As far as the 18 incident, he raced me like a clown all day," Harvick explained. "Three-wide, on the back bumper, running into me — and I just had enough."
"Sounds like [how] your teammates raced me all day," Hamlin countered.
"I just parked yours," Harvick shrugged.
All the while, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus calmly went about their business, making up positions lost on pit road and staying clear of any on-track predicaments. And as the laps clicked off — 30 to go, 20, 10 — the duo exhibited the poise that has been the hallmark of their five-year dynasty.
With Carl Edwards clearly in control of the race, Johnson simply cruised in second, never placing the car in a compromising position or seriously mounting a charge to take the lead, much like the last four years when Johnson did just enough at Homestead to capture the title. When the checkers waved, Johnson sat 39 points in front of Hamlin, and 41 up on Harvick.
"We did everything we could all year long, especially in the Chase," Johnson said. "And we had two teams right on our heels. I would say it was one of the more difficult Chases for us speed-wise. So the heart that it took to win this and the tough decisions we had to make at night, on Saturday nights typically going into a race on Sunday; I'm proud of how we dug our heels in and made it happen.
"Even with a ton of pressure and all of the things going on. I mean, we had to make a stand, and I'm proud that we stood up as a unit and did it."
As for an unprecedented sixth championship? The man viewed as the steward of the 48’s five titles, Knaus, has already gotten to work on that.
"The 2010 season ended two hours ago," he said after the victory celebration. "And the 2011 season began two hours ago."
Auto racing is a marathon, not a sprint, and for the majority of the tracks, the series and their seasons throughout the world, the champion is crowned before the final checkered flag falls. However, there are occasional points battles that, like the competition on the track, come down to the last lap.
This year’s Formula One championship was up in the air until Sebastian Vettel crossed the finish line in Abu Dhabi last weekend. And looking ahead to this weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship is setting up for a similar suspenseful finish. While they all can’t end this way, NASCAR fans should enjoy the nail-biting delicacy that is being served in 2010.
Whether utilizing the older point systems or the latest Chase format, hair-breadth finishes in the Cup Series have been few and far between. Since NASCAR’s modern era began, there have only been nine instances where the title came down to two drivers separated by 50 points or less going into the final race. Considering there have been seven races that saw a 300-plus point gap following the penultimate race, the odds are nearly 50-50 that the points battle will be a snoozer rather than a barn burner.
Now for the sobering part of the points analysis: The chance that Denny Hamlin will actually lose the title at Homestead is almost nil. Since 1972, the driver leading the points heading into the final race of the season has won the title in all but two years. In 1979, Darrell Waltrip was two points ahead of Richard Petty heading to Ontario Speedway but finished eighth while Petty came home fifth. The separation resulted in a 13-point swing and Petty winning the title by 11 points.
The other battle, a fight between five drivers, resulted in the greatest points battle in the history of the sport.
In 1992, Davey Allison led the circuit to Atlanta with a 30-point lead over Alan Kulwicki, with Bill Elliott another 10 back. Further back, Harry Gant and Kyle Petty, trailing by 97 and 98 points, respectively, still had a fighting, if not slim, chance.
On lap 254 of 328, Allison was caught up in an accident that ended his championship hopes while Petty and Gant were mostly non-factors throughout the afternoon. And although Elliott won the race, Kulwicki managed to lead the most laps — 103 to Elliott’s 102 — earning a five-point bonus and wrapping up the title by 10 markers.
We can hope for that type of drama at Homestead — Johnson and Hamlin running side-by-side for the lead, tied for the most laps led with five to go, spinning one another out on the final lap as Harvick roars by, taking the checkers and the championship.
Unfortunately for those seeking the drama, the odds are that Hamlin is going to have his car working like it did last year at Homestead and will put the nail in the coffin by dominating the race. The scenarios concerning he and Johnson finishing first and second, leading one lap or leading the most laps favor the current points leader. But as the old saying goes, "That’s why they play the game."
From the Spotter’s Stand
The real winner in Miami isn’t the driver who takes the checkers and does the hat dance; it’s the man who seals the deal on a Cup title following the final race of the Chase — and then does the hat dance.
Denny Hamlin took his Toyota to victory last season, breaking a streak of five consecutive Ford wins, including three straight by Greg Biffle (2004-06). Hamlin took the lead on Lap 223 of 267 and cruised to his fourth win of the season by a comfortable 2.632 seconds ahead of Jeff Burton.
But the driver who took the most post-race pictures with NASCAR czar Brian France was Jimmie Johnson, who made history by winning his fourth consecutive Cup title. A fifth-place finish at Homestead was good enough to break a tie with Cale Yarborough, who won three straight Cups from 1976-78.
Johnson will once again attempt to make his history in Homestead, as he’ll square off with Hamlin and Kevin Harvick to decide the 2010 Sprint Cup. JJ has never won at the 1.5-mile oval, but he has partied in South Beach with crew chief Chad Knaus and the 48 team each of the past four years, despite finishing fifth (2009), seventh (2007), ninth (2006) and 15th (2008) in the race itself.
Like Johnson, Harvick has no wins, but has pieced together a solid run of finishes, having recorded seven top-10 finishes in nine HMS starts — including his last performances of second and third.
Since South Florida began hosting the season finale in 2002, the leader in the point standings (2002-03) or the Chase (2004-present) has never clinched a Cup title with a win at Homestead.
Crew Chief’s Take
"I think the racing at Homestead is as good as anywhere now. My God, that track was such a disaster when it opened. They shaped it like Indianapolis, only smaller, but they didn’t realize that squared-off corners are just dangerous on a track that’s a mile and half, not two. So they rounded the corners, and then stage three was tapering the banking in the turns. It took a bunch of money and revamping, but they got it right. It’s a lot like Atlanta back before Bruton (Smith) rebuilt it, but it’s really unique because it doesn’t have those old, sweeping Atlanta turns."
Looking at Checkers: It’s hard not to assume the three title contenders — Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick — won’t decide it amongst themselves. Pretty Solid Pick: Carl Edwards leads the circuit with a 6.5-place average finish in the Keys. Good Sleeper Pick: Johnson hasn’t had to race for a win here in five years, so it’s hard to say exactly how good he’ll be. The safe bet is he can hold his own. Runs on Seven Cylinders: This is one of only two tracks where Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not recorded a top-10 finish. Insider Tip: Roush-Fenway had won five in a row here until Hamlin broke up the party in 2009.
Classic Moments in Homestead
Bill Elliott catches his 21-year old Evernham Motorsports teammate, Casey Atwood, with four laps to go and earns his first win in 227 races in the 2001 Pennzoil Freedom 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Atwood, a young upstart from Nashville, Tenn., leads 52 laps in the Ray Evernham-owned No. 19 Dodge but can’t hold off the veteran Elliott, whose previous win had come in the 1994 Southern 500.
Elliott wins three more races with Evernham — including the 2002 Brickyard 400 — before parting ways after the ’03 season. Atwood is not so fortunate, as Evernham replaces him in the No. 19 the following season with Jeremy Mayfield. Atwood, in turn, is placed in the Jim Smith/Evernham-owned No. 7 car, more or less an R&D vehicle. Atwood is out of the Cup ranks a little over a year later.
2009 Top 10
1. Denny Hamlin
2. Jeff Burton
3. Kevin Harvick
4. Kurt Busch
5. Jimmie Johnson
6. Jeff Gordon
7. Carl Edwards
8. Kyle Busch
9. Martin Truex Jr.
10. AJ Allmendinger
Denny Hamlin — 71
Kevin Harvick — 56
Kurt Busch — 43
Tony Stewart — 43
Jimmie Johnson — 29
Jeff Burton — 19
Marcos Ambrose — 4
Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Michael Waltrip — 1
1. Denny Hamlin Held onto that top spot in the standings despite a move that burned him at Phoenix. This title is truly his to lose now.
2. Jimmie Johnson Of course, Jimmie is still keeping pace, 15 points behind Hamlin and still very much alive. He hasn’t had to be great at Homestead for so long, it’s not clear just how good that 48 team is there.
3. Kevin Harvick Title Contender No. 3 said via Twitter this week that his team has received no respect from this media throughout the Chase, so ìto heck with them all.î Focus on the task at hand, Kevin.
4. Joey Logano Has improved his finish each of the last five weeks from seventh to sixth to fifth to fourth to third. Unfortunately, he’s going to run out of weeks. Unless the streak carries over to Daytona.
5. Greg Biffle Consecutive top-5 runs in the bag for Biffle with Homestead, a track he’s won on more than any other in the Cup Series, on tap.
6. Mark Martin When you can say that you expected more out of a guy after an eighth-place run, it should tell you how good a team like Martin’s No. 5 bunch is running as the season winds down.
7. Carl Edwards With Edwards’ long-overdue win now out of the way, all eyes are on Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon to get off the schnide.
8. Matt Kenseth Who would have thought a team like Kenseth’s, which limped into the Chase, would be ranked fifth going into the final race? Pay no mind to the 311-point deficit, of course.
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9. Clint Bowyer And then there’s Bowyer, with two Chase wins and a hefty NASCAR penalty, that finds himself hopelessly mired in 11th.
10. Jeff Gordon The result of the now-infamous pit crew swap between Johnson and Gordon? Johnson finished fifth, Gordon 11th. That’s not much different than before, is it?
11. Ryan Newman Averaged a 22.6-place finish at Phoenix until this season, when he finished first and second.
12. Kyle Busch Another trip to Homestead on tap, another mail-it-in performance from Kyle.
13. Tony Stewart Hasn’t finished in the top 10 since his win in California over a month ago.
14. Jeff Burton Let’s hope Harvick respectfully declines if Burton offers to share his notes.
15. Jamie McMurray Would be cool to see JMac cap off a comeback season for the ages with a win in Homestead.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya, David Reutimann
Denny Hamlin said the strategy was to keep the points leader in his sights through the first half of the Chase and then turn it on in the second — and he’s done just that, having won two of the previous three heading into the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
And Hamlin was within 50 laps of making it three-for-four when the plan hit a snag. That snag came in two forms: Carl Edwards and fuel mileage.
Edwards, winless since the 2008 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, dueled door-to-door with Hamlin — who had led a race-high 190 laps to that point — for a number of laps before securing the top spot and driving off. That’s when, 40 laps from the finish, Concern No. 2 began creeping onto the radar of Hamlin’s No. 11 pit box.
The leaders had not hit pit road in nearly 50 laps, and trying to stretch fuel mileage another 40 miles was going to be tight. They needed a caution flag.
Unfortunately (poetically, almost) for Hamlin, the debris cautions he so vocally decried earlier in the season never came, and with a thin points advantage over seventh-place Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, who was running 12th, crew chief Mike Ford was forced to play it conservatively.
Not believing Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota could make it to the checkers, Ford called his driver down pit road with 14 laps remaining. Hamlin emerged 19th and quickly began picking off spots. However, the majority of the leaders rolled the dice, betting they had enough fuel to get them home — and it was a winning gamble.
Edwards held on for his 17th career Cup win, although Ryan Newman, Joey Logano and Greg Biffle were hot on his tracks until the finish.
And most notably, just behind them — finishing fifth and sixth, respectively — were Hamlin’s chief rivals, Johnson and Harvick. With Hamlin slicing through the field to finish 12th, his points advantage stands at 15 over Johnson and 46 over Harvick with one race remaining in the 2010 season.
And one week after Ford had trumpeted his team as the best on the circuit, his driver showed a mix of disappointment, worry and frustration that they couldn’t put a vice lock on the title.
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"There were a ton of guys that made it that pitted at the same time we did," Hamlin said. "Usually we have the best fuel mileage. That part I just don’t understand. I can save fuel pretty well, but I was never alerted to save fuel. So I assumed that everyone was going to have to pit. I didn’t even think it was a question ... Like I said, I did my job."
The missed opportunity aside, Hamlin still heads to the season finale as the points leader, able to ignore what’s in his rear-view mirror.
"I won’t need a pep talk," he said of next week’s race. "Of course, I’m going to be disappointed for the next couple hours, but trust me, when I get home, I’m done with it. I’m going to move on and try how to figure out how to win next week. This is fuel for me."
Johnson ran half throttle for the final 10 laps to assure his No. 48 machine would make it the distance. Harvick, though, took advantage of a pit-road miscue that occurred with 88 laps to go. With the leaders — many getting what would prove to be their final stop — getting service under caution, Harvick’s crew left a lug nut off of his No. 29 Chevrolet. Forced to come back in, he fell from fifth to 19th on the restart with 83 laps to go.
When the race’s final caution was thrown four laps later, Harvick, along with Newman, Logano, and others, drove back onto pit road to top off the tanks, allowing them to run hard to the finish.
"I was pretty down and thought, ‘There it went,’" said Harvick of the missing lug nut. "Richard [Childress] and Gil [Martin, crew chief] were just like, ‘Keep at it, you never know what’s going to happen.’ Then they told me that I could make it on gas."
As for next weekend’s deciding race, Johnson said it best:
"A good day isn’t going to get it done [at Homestead]. You gotta have a great day. I know what my mindset is and I hope the pressure of us being on his [Hamlin’s] heels really works on his mind throughout the course of the week — he and his crew. Those guys better be on their toes.
"Not only do they have the 48 to worry about, but they have the 29 and [a] one-race, winner-take-all — it’s going to be one hell of a show."
The 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup has been under fire this season — perhaps more than any other — for drawing more of a casual fan demographic (and the NFL audience) with its playoff-themed format, resulting in declining ratings, waning attendance and an overwhelming desire to see someone other than Jimmie Johnson thanking the employee-owners of Lowe’s for making good on "The Drive for Five," having just completed "The Bore of Four" a season ago.
With two races to go, however, we have a legitimate championship slugfest on our hands. Although at the onset the Chase thrusts drivers into the conversation who have no shot whatsoever to come even remotely close to being championship material, the trio of drivers that will decide it among themselves are the right ones to be doing it. Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin have consistently been the best all season, and now have two weeks to decide who will hoist the hardware at Homestead.
1. Denny Hamlin
Even if he does not manage to hold on to his tenuous 33-point lead over Johnson and 59-point spread on Harvick, 2010 will prove to be the year Hamlin made the jump from being a steady driver good for a couple of wins a year to a prime-time player who will be contending for titles and big-money wins for the next decade.
Everyone should be familiar with Hamlin’s story by now; he had surgery to repair a torn ACL in April only to clamber back into his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota a week after getting cut. He gutted it out that week at Phoenix, even enduring a shot in the door by a spinning Kurt Busch in the early going. Hamlin would win the following week in Texas to set the tone for his season and his organization.
Having sacrificed a shot at the 2009 championship with a couple of admittedly boneheaded moves, Hamlin began to take his job as a driver in the highest level of American motorsports more seriously. He took a leadership role, set the example and did whatever he could for his team — and in the process, stood in sharp contrast to his teammate in the flagship No. 18 JGR entry.
Heading to Phoenix, Hamlin looks to have the wind at his back after an underwhelming first half of the Chase. And as clichéd as it may sound, the title really is his to lose. It’s no secret that Hamlin makes hay on flat tracks, having garnered 11 of his 16 career wins on flats. He’s never won at Phoenix, but he has top 5s in half of his starts, as well as a pole win the first time he laid eyes on the joint.
Hamlin finished 30th at PIR in the spring following his knee operation, but was third in this race a year ago. Homestead was the site of Hamlin’s eighth career win in the final race of the ’09 campaign, a total he has doubled thus far in 2010. That win was a watershed moment of sorts, one in which he declared that he had figured out what he was doing wrong in the Chase, and would fix it the next time around. He’s done just that, playing the odds to perfection, taking the points at the precise point in the playoffs this season.
Have Hamlin and the No. 11 team finally figured out a way to out-48 the 48 team? So far they have played this game to perfection, mixing in patience, performance, and now psych-ops against the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut. With less than 600 laps of racing left in the 2010 Championship fight, their plan appears to be working.
2. Jimmie Johnson (-33 points)
Remember how in The Andy Griffith Show, Barney Fife would manage to shoot himself in the foot with the one round he’d have loaded in his revolver? You could say Johnson and the No. 48 team did that last week, but it may prove to be more akin to Martin Riggs emptying the magazine of his Beretta into his boot.
After four straight titles, a Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400s galore and winning six races this year, the pit crew of the Lowe’s team was benched, swapped out with the crew of Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team. A bad day at the office, courtesy of some cramped pit quarters and loose lugs, precipitated a change that you can rationalize all day, but still doesn’t make much sense in the midst of a championship brawl.
The pit crew seems to have been made a scapegoat of sorts, as Johnson has not exactly been himself this season, either. A number of self-induced spins, and the new role of being somebody’s father has cause some to wonder — if not simply hope — that priorities have changed for the guy who never seems to break a sweat under pressure. A quick look at the stat sheet, however, shows that 2010 is virtually identical to three of the last four title-winning seasons.
The timing of such a move is suspect at best; Johnson is trailing this late in the game for the first time since 2005, the last time he lost a championship. PIR is one of Johnson’s best tracks (does he really have a bad one?), having won four of the last six races there and finishing no worse than seventh since 2005. Homestead remains one of the four tracks Johnson has yet to win at, though in fairness, his last four trips have not demanded a win, only to ride around and stay away from trouble.
Then again, should Johnson rally to win his fifth title, crew chief Chad Knaus will once again confirm his genius and further demoralize anyone who thinks they actually stand a chance at dethroning a motorsports dynasty that is every bit the equal of anything that ever rolled out of Level Cross, Ingle Hollow or Maranello.
3. Kevin Harvick (-59 points)
One of the greatest contentions that many long-time fans and casual observers have with NASCAR is how the Chase essentially invalidates just about everything that was accomplished during the previous 26 races. So you could forgive Kevin Harvick if he were to harbor similar sentiments after having led the point standings virtually the entire season, scoring three wins while enjoying a 228-point advantage prior to the reset after Richmond.
It’s an advantage that today would stand at an insurmountable 300-point lead.
While Hamlin had his breakout season this year, 2010 could be considered a turning point in Harvick’s career as well. Don’t get me wrong — he’s still as brash and prickly as ever, feuding with foes (Joey Logano), friends (Hamlin) and teammates (Jeff Burton), although most of the dustups were temporary scuffles that didn’t linger.
Harvick’s consistency and return to Victory Lane was a boon for Richard Childress Racing, and rather surprising, since at the end of the 2009 season, it didn’t appear Harvick was long for the hallowed halls of RCR.
The key moment of Harvick’s 2010 rebound may prove to have been his win at Michigan International Speedway in August, not the pit crew swap with Clint Bowyer’s No. 33 team prior to Martinsville. It was the first non-restrictor plate win for Harvick since 2006, when he won at ... wait for it ... Phoenix International Raceway.
Harvick may not be that happy to return to a track where he swept the 2006 season, though, since he has not scored a top 10 since 2008. Although on a brighter note, his last two trips to Homestead have netted finishes of second and third.
That kind of consistency has been the secret to Harvick’s Chase success and kept him in the fight thus far. He hasn’t won a race during the Chase yet, though he was in position to win at Martinsville and Talladega — insert pit crew swap comment here. Harvick and his Gil Martin-led team really have had only one stumble so far in the playoffs, which occurred at Dover, where he recorded his only sub-top-10 showing. Still he remains in position to bring Childress his first Cup championship since 1994.
This weekend’s three-man duel in the desert provides as level a playing field as we’ve seen yet, and not just because of Phoenix’s absence of banking. PIR is one of the few venues left remotely resembling a short track, and that style of racing lends itself to more opportunities for passing, and therefore, what NASCAR is hoping and praying for: more drama.
While we can say with some degree of certainty it is going to be a good race, and a close fight down to the wire for the title, the only question is, how many people are going to be tuned in to watch what could be the best title fight in six years?