Johnson ran second to Carl Edwards in Sunday’s season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to secure the first come-from-behind title in his skein of five championships.
Edwards’ victory was perfection. He led 190 of 267 laps in winning his second straight Sprint Cup race and the 18th of his career.
“Why didn’t you set the cars up like this before, Bob?” Edwards joked with crew chief Bob Osborne after the race. “That was the best performance down the straightaway I’ve had in a long time.”
The race for the championship was anything but perfection. And it wasn’t the high drama fans had anticipated from the closest Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup since the introduction of NASCAR’s playoff format in 2004.
An early spin on the part of Denny Hamlin, the Chase leader by 15 points entering the final race, ultimately proved decisive. A pit road speeding penalty knocked Kevin Harvick (third in points) to the rear of the field just when he appeared ready to contend for the victory. Hamlin finished 14th; Harvick rallied to finish third.
Sloppy work in the pits on the part of Johnson’s “substitute” crew—borrowed from Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team in the middle of the eighth Chase race (at Texas) and bound to Johnson thereafter—repeatedly cost the champion track position.
To call the final race a comedy of errors on the part of the title contenders may be harsh, but championship team owner Rick Hendrick did precisely that.
“It was like, ‘Who’s going to screw up the most?’ ” Hendrick said after claiming his 10th Cup title (five with Johnson, four with Gordon and one with Terry Labonte).
In the afterglow of a fifth straight title, however, the flaws in the process didn’t matter.
“Jimmie, you are a rock star, my friend,” Chad Knaus radioed after Johnson crossed the finished line 1.608 seconds behind Edwards. “You have proven it time and time again. And you damn did it today, my friend.”
Johnson finished 39 points ahead of Hamlin and 41 ahead of Harvick.
Before the race was 25 laps old, Hamlin made a tough job much more difficult. His No. 11 Toyota, which had started the race 37th but had gained 18 positions in the first 23 laps, touched the No. 16 Ford of Greg Biffle as the cars sped through Turn 2 on Lap 24. Hamlin spun through the infield grass, damaging the front splitter and knocking the toe angle of the tires out of position.
Though his crew worked feverishly to repair the damage, the incident affected the handling just enough to keep Hamlin from making an aggressive run to the front. His troubles were compounded when he was trapped a lap down during a cycle of pit stops and had to take a wave-around to the tail end of the lead lap. At that point Hamlin was fighting Harvick for second in the final standings, not battling Johnson for the championship.
“I felt like, as soon as we dropped the green, I thought we could win the race,” Hamlin said. “Our car was really fast at the beginning—I mean, just unbelievably fast at the beginning—and I knew we had a car that could contend for a win, and obviously when we got in that incident on the back straightaway, it tore up the front and knocked the toe out, and obviously the car did not drive as well for the rest of the day.
“We just tried to patch it and work on it the best we could, but it just wasn’t the car that it was at the beginning. It’s just part of racing.”
Johnson restarted second on Lap 251 after Harvick dumped Kyle Busch, Hamlin’s teammate, into the inside frontstretch wall to cause the 10th and final caution on Lap 244. Johnson couldn’t catch Edwards over the final 17 laps, but he pulled away from Harvick to secure the title.
“I’m just beside myself,” Johnson said in Victory Lane. “Four was amazing. Now I have to figure out what the hell to say about winning five of these things, because everybody is going to want to know what it means. I don’t know. It is pretty damn awesome — I can tell you that.”