But as the racing entered the fourth quarter, a shocking turn of events reminded us all how quickly things can change right up through the white flag lap. How appropriate that in the desert, the thirst for fuel in the last few minutes turned one man's title dreams into a mirage -- at least for now -- while strategy, not speed, jumbled up the order like a Jenga puzzle. How a wounded four-time champ came out the big winner, triumphing on a day when we were reminded of the mental side of sports, kicks off the five things we learned from the season's penultimate race:
1) Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson pulled a rabbit out of the hat.
This duo's shocking rise from the dead was one of the most surprising developments all season. It was the equivalent to a prizefighter getting a punch in the face, panicking, falling to the mat and enduring a nine-second count before bouncing up to hit his opponent with a surprise left jab in the 10th.
Make no mistake, no matter how much they both try to spin it, for every bit of this weekend the No. 48 juggernaut looked to be closing the book on its chapter-making history. Four-time winners at Phoenix, they were outqualified and outpracticed by points-leader Denny Hamlin, an embarrassing start on what should be a virtual home field for Johnson and Knaus.
While the aggressive move to swap pit crews with Jeff Gordon worked out -- the team never had a bad stop all day -- Knaus seemed to be losing lug nuts left and right, failing on the right adjustments to get his driver the speed to contend. Never leading a lap, Johnson was about a sixth-place car while rival Hamlin dominated the second he assumed the point on Lap 66. With Hamlin leading 190 of the next 200 laps, the fat lady wasn't quite singing yet -- but she was looking for a rag so Johnson could help polish his rival's trophy.
But what happened next reminded us why this team can never be counted out. From the team's final stop on Lap 224 of 312, Knaus started thinking fuel, remembering that while three of the last four races here had a caution flag in the closing laps, last November's -- which Johnson won -- went green for the final 134.
"We were going to be pretty close when we stopped with 88 to go. As soon as we took off, I told Jimmie to go ahead and save fuel and start saving at that point." he said. "Obviously, you can't predict what was going to happen [but] we were only a half a lap short [by our calculations]."
So Knaus' calm voice took charge on the radio, pacing his driver through one final caution in which none of the leaders stopped, then a 73-lap green-flag finish to decide it all. Once it was clear Hamlin had too much speed, the focus switched to beating him by staying out, Knaus listening to the Gibbs radio and confirming the No. 11 would come in to pit. It's a strategy that showcased a recent aggressive streak, out of character for them in the Chase, especially since saving gas is one of their few main weaknesses. Run out, even with a half-lap to go, and they could have kissed their five-peat chances goodbye.
But that didn't happen. Instead, a fifth-place finish shocked the world when Hamlin's extra stop dropped him down to 12th and his points lead over Johnson to just 15. All of a sudden, a championship lost may have been found. All of a sudden, Johnson, not Hamlin, was the one talking trash and taking charge.
"We started early enough thinking about fuel, to where I felt comfortable that we had a chance," said J.J. after pulling it off. "The fact that the fuel mileage was there today and got us in position to go to Homestead and really race for this and to put a lot of pressure on that No. 11 (Hamlin) is the biggest thing working for us right now. And the fact that we reduced that point lead? I hope [Hamlin] has a heck of a time sleeping all week and I hope he hears every rattle in that car (laughs) and everything that you can imagine at Homestead."
Those brash comments from NASCAR's Mr. Politically Correct shows you just how pumped up this swing left the No. 48. I have to admit, the aggressive maneuvers that I thought would kill Johnson and Knaus now puts the mental edge directly in their corner.
That makes them dangerous.
2) Denny Hamlin can't let the "old him" creep back in for the season finale.
After Johnson pulled off the equivalent of highway robbery, the man who dominated Sunday's race was an ugly combination of angry, agitated and awe-struck.
"For me I guess as soon as I leave Phoenix, I have to leave Phoenix in Phoenix. That's the thing is you can't let this -- " said Hamlin before pausing, painfully unable to admit just how difficult this one will be to swallow. "I couldn't control it."
"I did my job."
That last point was a thinly veiled jab at crew chief Mike Ford, who never told Hamlin to attempt to save fuel in the closing laps. Claiming the car was 12 laps short, the head wrench never hesitated to bring in his driver with a conservative mindset in place. It's the same strategy they've used during the entire Chase, the type of controlled aggression typically employed by the No. 48.
They just didn't expect their challengers to change course.
"I wasn't aware that anyone was going to try to stretch it and make it," said the driver. "Mike didn't make me aware that anyone was going to stretch it. Knowing that we had a very, very good points lead with 15 or 20 to go, that quickly diminishes, it hurts. It hurts when you have a car that can possibly win."
So what happens now? The key lies in just how quickly Hamlin is willing to forgive and forget. These types of incidents have been the nail in the No. 11 team's coffin in past years, emotional angst getting the better of them at the worst possible time. If everyone just takes a deep breath, they can comfort themselves with these facts:
• They take a 15-point lead to Homestead. That makes them the favorite, not the underdog.
• Hamlin won Homestead going away last year, leading 71 laps while Johnson was fifth.
• Hamlin's average finish for the last four races in the season finale: 5.0. Johnson's: 9.0.
• We'll call this one the Common Sense point of the day. When needed, the No. 11 has been faster than Johnson on pure speed at every moment during the second half of this Chase -- exactly like they planned it.
On paper, that means this title race is still a no-brainer. The only question is whether Hamlin's head will let him believe it. By the way, notice we haven't mentioned third-place Kevin Harvick, who sits 46 points back with one race left. In my opinion, barring a miracle where these two rivals crash I just don't see a scenario where he up and steals it.
So let's move on, especially since a large section of the fan base considers this playoff all needless drama and is busy congratulating the "regular season" champion: Harvick would have clinched under the pre-Chase system with Sunday's sixth-place finish.
3) Carl Edwards has quietly been molding himself into a 2011 title contender.
Ever so quietly, Ford's one-time best hope has been repositioning himself in the fall to be a future title contender. Sunday's victory was the peak of it all, snapping a 70-race winless drought dating to 2008's season finale at Homestead. Going back to basics this summer, Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne learned to run up front all over again, building consistency in the form of a dozen straight top-12 finishes, even though he led just a half-dozen laps through the end of August.
But Atlanta, the same track where Edwards had the ugly "flip incident" with Brad Keselowski last spring, is the place they began to step it up another notch. A runner-up finish there was followed by a Richmond pole, then a Chase in which they'd be a long-shot title contender if not for mechanical problems at Fontana.
"It's unreal. It's so neat," he said, celebrating his win by walking through an unlocked gate to celebrate with fans. "We needed this win."
Sometime next spring, don't be surprised if others are needing to figure out why Edwards is leading the points.
4) Non-Chase names that aren't being mentioned ... but ones you shouldn't be forgetting about.
Non-Chase drivers did their part to keep their 2011 title dreams alive and well. There's Joey Logano, who made it on fuel while his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates couldn't to complete a strange but true 7-6-5-4-3 finishing order the last five races. The way things are going, he's a lock for runner-up at Homestead and should be a strong candidate to grab his first Chase bid next September.
One spot ahead was Ryan Newman, backing up his April victory at PIR with a runner-up result. In eighth was Mark Martin, continuing to rebuild consistency with an eighth top-15 finish of the Chase. And win-or-bust Jamie McMurray continues to learn to make the most of bad days, finishing 10th after being out to lunch the whole race. All four have arguably outperformed half the initial list of a dozen "championship contenders" who will end this year hobbling to the finish despite earning a playoff berth.
5) Potential free agents are limping toward the offseason in major trouble.
For people in need of potential sponsorship, the invisibility of J.J. Yeley/Latitude 43 Motorsports, Sam Hornish Jr., Robby Gordon, Scott Speed, Terry Labonte and TRG Motorsports (with Brendan Gaughan driving) was troubling Sunday. All of these drivers and teams in need of sponsorship and a ride for 2011 didn't do themselves any favors with Fortune 500 companies and potential new owners already hesitant to invest. Why are these backmarkers so important? With Richard Petty Motorsports on life support, should these teams also disappear, we'll be looking at short fields next season in a troubling economic sign for a sport that's had less than a 43-car field just once since February 1998. And if Speed, Hornish and possibly even A.J. Allmendinger head back to open-wheel next season, with Chevy's re-entry into IndyCar causing some buzz, could NASCAR's No. 1 race ranking in America be in greater jeopardy than most think?
Race Grade: C. Sure, this race had a fantastic finish, but one fuel gamble didn't keep enough fans sitting through three hours of monotony. Eight of the last nine races at Phoenix have featured fewer than 15 lead changes, one of the few "short tracks" I've ever seen where the field can somehow spread out like an intermediate. Luckily, speedway management is working toward a $10 million plus capital improvements project, a plan to build graduated backing into the asphalt in an effort to improve competition.
Phew! Those changes can't come soon enough.