Heading into Homestead Sunday, the six-year Chase carried with it one dubious statistic: no point leader heading into the season finale had lost the championship. In fact, such a scenario had happened only twice in NASCAR's modern era: Darrell Waltrip to Richard Petty in 1979 and Davey Allison to Alan Kulwicki in 1992. That left the drama of the final race, often hyped, to fall flat instead of someone stepping up and acting out the script.
Leave it to the master of NASCAR's playoff system to be the one breaking the mold. Jimmie Johnson put together an all-around great performance Sunday, rallying to finish second after some pit road troubles and win a fifth straight championship over Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. It was as suspense-filled a final chapter for the sport since 2004, the favorite-turned-underdog righting the ship just in time to save his dynasty from toppling. How'd he do it? And how in the world can he ever be beat? That leads off the five things we learned from NASCAR's action-packed finale:
For me, the key moment of this race wasn't a Denny Hamlin spin, a Kevin Harvick speeding penalty, or even a botched pit stop by Johnson's crew. Instead, it revolved around the best head wrench on the circuit, Chad Knaus, making the right calls during an adjustment with 69 laps to go.
At the time, Johnson's once-impressive chances at taking home the trophy were looking bleak. Hamlin had slipped ahead of the No. 48 for the first time all day, running eighth to Johnson's 11th while the car had been struggling with handling in traffic. The crew had just lost Johnson five spots on pit road, and Jeff Gordon was on the verge of blowing an engine, heightening worries the No. 48 could be next.
There are two words for how most in that scenario would have reacted: Flipping. Out. But Knaus and Johnson were as calm on the radio as I've ever seen them, neither getting distracted as happened at Texas once poor stops necessitated the current change to Jeff Gordon's former over-the-wall crew. Instead, the experience of four straight titles was what toned down the nerves, all involved refocusing their efforts through a stop that left Johnson gaining three spots, Hamlin losing one, and the perfect tweaks made to set the car on cruise control the rest of the race.
"I knew at some point there was a feeling that was going to show up, and I was ready for it," said Johnson, who charged to second and was never seriously challenged after that. "The experience of being there helps so, so much."
"There's more of a sense of calm over what to do," added Knaus. "The team knows what to do, the guys know what to do. This week, I had a pretty good week from a stress level. It was nice not to be stressed [as opposed to past years]."
It was that Zen attitude at the right times that allowed them to push forward, ultimately frustrating Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick while their title bids came just short. Knowing the team had to qualify well, they had a good Friday practice, buckled down, and threw the first punch by qualifying sixth. One day later, after two ugly practices, they calmly went over the right changes to the early setup to ensure Hamlin and Harvick were constantly on the ropes. And throughout the day on Sunday, their focus never shifted to the two feisty challengers, staying locked instead on what they as a team could do to work hard toward a championship that just two weeks earlier had seemed lost.
The scope of this comeback prompted NASCAR legends Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip to call Johnson "the best ever." I don't agree, but to a certain extent they have a point. Johnson's five titles came in only 327 races, compared to 390 for Earnhardt and 654 for Petty, a stat that's enough to put Johnson's name in the discussion. Sure, his current reign came under the auspices of a format that most fans have come to dislike. But don't you play ball within the confines of the system you're given? Looking at three major team sports, Major League Baseball has just one five-time consecutive champion (the Yankees), matching the NBA (Celtics), while the NFL has none.
The bottom line is that Johnson, last year's AP Male Athlete of the Year, deserves respect regardless of personal popularity. This year more than any other, with the pit crew swap and the puzzling inability for Knaus to make improvements on several tracks, the onus for this championship came down on Johnson himself. The man was pressured, pushed to the brink and his response was to deliver a title -- another notch in a future Hall of Fame belt that seems to know no limits going forward, regardless of how his political correctness in front of the camera has turned fans off.
"What they have done," said Harvick, "I saw the list of the couple of seven-time champions in front of him. I think that one is pretty easy to put into perspective."
We'll see if NASCAR nation agrees.
For both of this year's Chase bridesmaids, they'll be looking at this Johnson-Chase marriage from afar and wondering what might have been.
For Hamlin, the turning point inevitably in this race caused the day's second caution on Lap 25. Coming off Turn 2, a three-wide battle with Greg Biffle turned disastrous when the No. 11 and No. 16 cars made contact, sending the No. 11 spinning through the grass in an incident from which they never bounced back.
To his credit, the pre-race favorite/points leader handled defeat with class, not crass, never placing blame on an incident that sent his day into a downward spiral.
"The 16 came down real sharp into the right front," he said. "I'm guessing somebody probably sucked him three-wide at the last minute. That's part of racing."
Hamlin never even made it into the top five after that, only briefly cracking the top 10 while struggling with the handling of a car that ultimately wound up 14th.
"Our car just wasn't the same," he said, those early circumstances partially the result of starting 37th, a continuation of Friday qualifying issues that dogged the No. 11 over the final 10 races. "We did our best to try to repair it, but it just wasn't as fast as it was before. It's just circumstances."
That bad karma was put in motion one week earlier, a winning car at Phoenix disrupted by a faulty fuel mileage finish that left him 12th. Those 63 points ultimately proved the difference, the one thing Hamlin admitted to me he'd change about his Chase. A higher finish in Arizona could have left him racing conservatively in this week's finale instead of fighting Johnson tooth-and-nail for the title. But the winner of a Cup-best eight races can build on this experience going forward. If anyone can relate, it's Johnson, who came just as close in 2005 before a wreck left him limping to the finish behind Tony Stewart and heightening tensions in a relationship with Knaus that nearly ended in divorce. And look where he is now ...
"When it's that close, it's got to sting," Johnson said. "I'm sure Denny is disappointed."
But Hamlin will recover. As for Harvick, the regular-season titlist fell victim to a speeding penalty for entering pit road too fast, which kept him from mounting a serious challenge. It was a bitter pill to swallow, made all the more surprising because the stop his team pulled put them in the lead before going from hero to zero in a heartbeat.
"TV showed the 48 speeding a stop ago and they didn't do nothing about it," were the first comments over the team radio, a G-rated start before Harvick unleashed a barrage of curse words. "That's them [NASCAR] doing what they do best," was what's printable, while even Richard Childress joined in on the conspiracy.
"We still have enough time to come back and get it," he said. "If that's the way they want to play it, we'll come back and get it."
That never happened. Harvick made a frenetic charge, jumping 20 spots in 25 laps and ultimately finishing third. But that wasn't enough on a day when winning was the only option.
"I don't think that penalty will ever settle in my stomach," he said afterward, although it ultimately didn't make the difference. That car, for all the huff and puff heading to race day, was never better than about third place on speed.
For Harvick, that penalty wasn't the only complaint confined to pit road: the one thing he wanted changed in his Chase was replacing his old crew for all 10 races instead of five. Surprising how quickly that group got thrown under the bus, right? It was a bit unnecessary considering neither he nor Bowyer are hoisting up a title trophy.
A side circus to the whole championship battle played out in the way Kyle Busch raced all 400 miles. Determined to help Hamlin win the championship, the Joe Gibbs Racing teammate played the role of blocker while making it difficult to nearly impossible for both Harvick and Johnson to pass. Turning his car into a roving obstacle, Busch spent lap after lap irritating both, pushing the limit until a fed-up Harvick wrecked him with 23 laps to go, prompting the race's final caution.
"Well, that affected the outcome of the Chase," said a member of Busch's irritated crew on the radio. "That's about as blatant as blatant gets."
Busch didn't mince words either after emerging from a fiery, totaled Toyota.
"Just a guy that doesn't have his head on straight," said NASCAR's bad boy, a classic case of pot meeting kettle, considering a year in which he's been on the other side of several similar incidents. "Such a two-faced guy, it doesn't matter."
But Harvick didn't back down. "He raced me like a clown," he retorted in the post-race news conference. "Three-wide, on the back bumper, running into me, and I just had enough."
My take? Great theater, at the very least providing entertainment for those fans not focused on the championship. Even Hamlin, often a critic of his teammate, stuck up for Busch in an exchange that turned into a hilarious battle of wits:
Hamlin: "Your teammates raced me all day."
Harvick: "I just parked yours."
Of course, for those interested in the on-track action and not a points calculator, Mr. Edwards had the field covered a second straight week. Capping an astounding turnaround, a 70-race winless streak was replaced by two straight victories. Of the 427 laps that Edwards led this year, 283 came in the final two races.
"We've done a very good job of working together," Edwards said of his team. "It's easy to start looking around and pointing fingers [during a drought]. I feel I've worked very hard on some shortcomings that I've had as a driver; that process is very painful. But I'm very proud [we've made it through.]"
The solid ending has some, including this writer, thinking Edwards could be the man to beat in 2011. When Hamlin had his spin early, Edwards got on the radio and asked crew chief Bob Osborne to watch what the No. 11 team did, that it would be helpful to know if they were ever in that position "next year." It's that unending quest for knowledge, sweating the details, that makes him a threat next season.
The future of Richard Petty's organization continues to be in flux, with sources insisting over the weekend the team will shut down at least temporarily until funding is found. That creates uncertainty for A.J. Allmendinger, with no guarantee of a ride for 2011, heightening the stress level for one of the sport's most improved drivers. Given all the off-track distractions, Allmendinger's fifth-place finish at Homestead was all the more impressive.
"That was pretty wild," he said afterward. "This team could have easily fallen apart and just dismantled itself, but I feel like we became stronger. We will get this race team back where it needs to be."
And how about Aric Almirola? The final-month fill-in for Kasey Kahne was fourth Sunday, putting together a hardworking effort before heading off to JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series next year. The way things ended with Kahne -- now with Red Bull -- Budweiser may have gotten more mileage out of its sponsorship by letting the lame-duck driver go one month early.
"Richard Petty Motorsports should be very proud of themselves," Almirola said. "I know they are going through a lot, but they are going to get this race team turned around."
The only question remaining is whether investors -- and the bank -- will give them a chance. I say it's less than 50-50 they'll survive, but we'll see.