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Johnson races to fifth championship

After a grueling 35 races, not to mention a couple of special non-points races, NASCAR rang down the curtain on the 2010 Season last Sunday. The drama went lap-by-lap right down to the checkered flag of Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The debate will certainly go on all winter about what’s wrong with NASCAR, why the TV ratings are down. How big an effect is the current economic conditions in the county playing in the empty seats at the tracks week after week? Would things be better if NASCAR had never gone to the “Car of Tomorrow”? Was going to the “Chase for the Cup” format to select the series champion a smart move?


But one thing for sure, the racing on the track has been first rate. Going into last weekend’s season finalé, only 46 points separated the top three Chase contenders. Denny Hamlin went into the race with a 15-point lead over four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, and 46 points ahead of third-place Kevin Harvick. That 15-point spread between first and second is the closest with one race to go since the sport went to the Chase format 7 years ago.
None of this is a surprise; Hamlin, Johnson or Harvick have led the standings in 34 of the 35 weeks to date. Hamlin, the Chase’s top seed and leader in wins with eight on the year, went into the race in the cat bird seat, but not by much. Unlike past years when the points leader went into the season’s finalé needing only to finish 22nd or some such, and spent the day just trying to stay out of trouble, this year everyone had to race for the win.
The only mathematical formula that would guarantee Hamlin the win going in regardless of where Johnson and Harvick finished was for Hamlin to win the race, or finish second and lead the most laps. No points racing this day. Hamlin, by the way went into Sunday’s race as the defending champion of the season’s finalé, and has had three top five finishes at Homestead-Miami.
Johnson, the reigning and four-time champion, knows the pressure cooker environment best. But this year it was a little bit different. A six-time winner in 2010, Johnson led the points after five of the nine Chase races, but for the first time in his four-year reign as series champion, Jimmie Johnson went into the season finalé not in the points lead. Johnson went in to Sunday’s race knowing that even if he won, he would need some help.
History was not on Johnson’s side. Since the current point system was established in 1975 only two drivers have overcome a deficit in the season’s final race. Richard Petty in 1979 and Alan Kulwicki in 1992. Petty trailed Darrell Waltrip by 2 points in 79 and Kulwicki trailed Davey Allison by 30 points in 92.
Harvick had more work to do going into Sunday’s race. Once again the driver with the best record throughout the season is a victim of Brian France’s idiotic “Chase for the Cup” format. No Sprint Cup drive has logged more top 10s (25) or led the standings longer. Harvick led the standings for 20 of the seasons 26 races before they re-racked the points after the Richmond race in September to begin the Chase. He also notched three wins along the way.
The season finalé did not disappoint. Johnson had a leg up in a hurry with a sixth place starting position, Hamlin and Harvick had to come from back in the pack. Hamlin ran into early trouble when he tangled with Greg Biffle, spun through the grass and damaged the right front of the No. 11 car. They patched up he fender but the spin knocked out the tow in on Hamlin’s car. He never had the speed to run down Johnson after that.
It was no cake walk for Johnson. Once again pit crew miscues cost Johnson positions on the track. Johnson drove like a man possessed to finish in second place. Harvick gave it all he had, but finishing behind Johnson in third place was not enough to get the job done.
Ranking Jimmie Johnson in comparison at four straight was one thing, but five straight?
How ya gonna beat this guy? Unless Johnson gets caught up in celebrity, 2011 looks to be another tough season for the competition.
You may reach Pete Barber
at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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