Monday November 16th, 2009

Five things we learned on a postcard-perfect November day at Phoenix International Raceway:

1. Jimmie Johnson will be the 2009 Sprint Cup champion.

A week ago, Johnson wrecked on the third lap at Texas, losing more than 100 points off his lead over Mark Martin in the standings. Johnson and his crew came to the Valley of the Sun to do one thing: Seize back control of the Chase. Mission accomplished.

Johnson was positively dominant on Sunday, driving away from the field as if he possessed an extra gear of speed in his No. 48 Chevy. While other drivers had to aggressively break through the corners to keep their cars from sliding up the track, Johnson's car stuck through the turns as if a magnet was holding his car to the ground. That is where Johnson won the race. He led 238 of the 312 laps and, with one race left in the season, now holds a 108-point lead over Martin. If Martin leads the most laps AND wins on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson merely has to finish 25th or better to win an unprecedented fourth straight Cup championship.

"I'm not thinking about a party," Johnson said after the race. "When I go home tonight, I'm going to be driving laps [in my mind], what I think I need to do in qualifying trim so I can put my best effort in on Friday. Same thing for race practice on Saturday, and go racing Sunday. Texas was such a good lesson. And I hope that the points we lost in Texas isn't what keeps us from winning this championship."

It won't. Homestead isn't Johnson's best track -- he's never won at the 1.5-mile oval -- but it isn't his worst, either. His career average finish there is 13.6 and it's worth noting that he's won two of the last three races at intermediate-length tracks like Homestead. Expect Johnson to go for the lead early and then try to ride around in the front, which is where there's the slimmest chance of getting caught up in someone else's wreck. There's always the possibility of an engine failure, but it's highly unlikely. After all, Johnson has had only one engine failure in his last 154 races.

So go ahead and say it: Jimmie Johnson will be the 2009 Cup champion.

2. Mark Martin put up a strong fight.

On Saturday morning, I spent a long time hanging out with Martin and his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, for a story that will be in this week's magazine. A few things struck me: one, Martin is in a very good place in his life right now; two, don't feel sorry for him for finishing second in the points for a record-fifth time, because he certainly doesn't feel sorry for himself; and three, this team will be back in the title hunt next season.

Martin authored a strong race on Sunday, finishing fourth. But he just didn't have the car that Johnson did. But how strong has Martin been this season? Forget, for a moment, that he's won five races and captured a career-high seven poles. This is his most impressive statistic: He's been passed on the track about 200 fewer times than Johnson.

3. Denny Hamlin is generating momentum for 2010.

Oh, what might have been. That's what Hamlin is no doubt lamenting this morning. He finished third at Phoenix, which was the third time in the last four races he's wound up in the top three. Unlike virtually every other driver in the Chase, Hamlin has been able to keep up with Johnson. So why is he eighth in the standings? He's had three DNFs.

But momentum from the end of one year has a way of spilling over into the start of the next in NASCAR. That's why Hamlin will be worth keeping an eye on at Daytona in February. He'll be giving Johnson fits next year.

4. The season of woe continues for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Just when you thought Junior's lost season couldn't get any worse, it did. On Sunday, he ignited the biggest wreck of the afternoon when he lost control of his No. 88 Chevy, an accident that took out 10 cars. Junior went to the garage for repairs and then limped around the track for the final laps of the race. He ended up 35th and dropped to 24th in the standings, but that wasn't even the worst news of the day for the No. 88 team.

On their way to the track Sunday morning, six members of Junior's crew were involved in a car accident. Their vehicle was T-boned by another car at an intersection near PIR. No one was seriously hurt -- they were checked out at the infield care center and then went to work -- but it was another bad day in what has been a bad season for the entire No. 88 team.

5. Jimmie Johnson will earn the first win of his career at Homestead on Sunday.

To find out why, check back on Friday.

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