In one of the most dramatic races in recent memory, the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup literally came down to the wire. Entering the day, Denny Hamlin led Jimmie Johnson by 15 points, with Kevin Harvick only 46 points behind. With all three drivers looking to make their own history, the 267-lap race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway was going to determine the champion.
Throughout the course of the day, each of the three title contenders suffered setbacks and each overcame those troubles. Yet when Carl Edwards sealed the deal on a dominant performance and took the win, it was Johnson that was second, followed by Harvick in third and Hamlin in 14th.
Doing what they have done all season long, Johnson overcame adversity to overtake Hamlin and lock up his unprecedented fifth-straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Doing something no one before him has ever done, Johnson further solidified his place among NASCAR’s greatest drivers with Sunday’s result.
Crossing the line, Johnson came over the radio shouting to his crew, “Unbelievable! Unbelievable! WOOHOO! You guys are the best. I can't believe that we did this. Unbelievable!”
“I was after it pretty hard,” Johnson said of today’s race. “Chad (Knaus, crew chief) told me with about 10 to go to be smart and save our tires in case there was a green-white-checkered, and I definitely backed off a little bit at the end. I don’t think I had anything for the 99 (Edwards). This Lowe’s Chevrolet was awesome when it was up front and had clean air and we knew if we got up there that we would stay there and it really worked out that way in the end. Just an amazing day for the team as I mentioned earlier. I have to thank all my fans, all the employees at Lowe’s, and the fans of our sport—the people that may not be fans of the 48, but I think you saw something special today. We’ve got an awesome sport and I’m proud to represent it as our champion again.”
Struggling at times throughout the season, Johnson was forced to come from behind in the final race to take the title, only the third driver in history to do so – the others being Richard Petty and Alan Kulwicki. This championship also puts Johnson third all-time, behind Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt. For team owner Rick Hendrick, his 10th championship now gives him the most of any car owner, surpassing Petty Enterprises.
"I never thought I would win one of these deals,” Hendrick said. “I thank Lowe's and Chevrolet and everybody that has helped us. These guys have worked hard. This was a hard fought deal. I thought we lost it three times in this race. It is unbelievable. We appreciate all the fans. I don't know if anybody will ever win five of these things in a row again, they'll be going for six next year, so here we go."
Celebrating at the end of the day, Johnson’s path toward his fifth championship was not as easy in years past. Going into the race behind in the standings Johnson’s day was dependent on his team’s performance, and they responded as they have the past four years.
With the pressure on him stemming from his miscalculation last weekend in Phoenix, Hamlin’s weekend got off to a rough start when he qualified 37th Friday afternoon. Quickly working through the field, Hamlin was working under Greg Biffle when they went three-wide with Paul Menard on Lap 24. As they came off the corner, Hamlin made contact with Biffle and the No. 11 slid down the track and into the grass. While he was able to avoid further problems, the car suffered the damage to the right front fender and the splitter.
Restarting the race in 39th, Hamlin struggled with the car, but made headway back toward the front of the field. Stalling out around the 16th spot, it would take more adjustments and work on the splitter to correct the setbacks caused from the early incident.
“That spin really hurt us. It messed up the front splitter and knocked the toe out of the car, and it just didn’t drive as well as it did at the beginning,” Hamlin said. “At the beginning I thought we were in really good shape. Our car was flying through the pack. It was unbelievable. And, just had that incident and it kind of took us out of it.”
While it took Hamlin out of the race, it did not take him completely out of the championship picture. However, when Harvick spun Hamlin’s teammate Kyle Busch as the final round of green flag pit stops cycled through, the No. 11 car was mired a lap down and at that point out of contention for the title.
“I thought it was over when the 18 wrecked, for sure, that trapped us a lap down,” said Hamlin. “The 29 and the 48 were actually just a straightaway ahead, but the way it timed out to when that caution fell, it trapped us a lap down, and so they stayed out and the cars at the back all came and got tires, so it separated us. What was a straightaway turned into 15 spots when that caution flew, and that really hurt us quite a bit.”
For Harvick, dealing with Busch was not the only issue he had to overcome throughout the day. With his pit crew performing at the top of their game throughout the entire day, the No. 29 crew sent Harvick off pit road with the lead for the first time on the day. Just as things were looking up for the Chase’s dark horse, NASCAR indicated Harvick was speeding getting onto pit road.
Instead of leading the race on the restart and receiving five bonus points, Harvick restarted at the tail end of the lead lap on Lap 193 and was forced to work his way back to the front.
“I don't think that penalty will ever settle in my stomach,” Harvick said afterward. “When you read me off of my pit road times of 49.6, 49.4 50.8 and then 49.6; and there's only a handful people that get to see them, I won't ever settle for that.
“I don't know how you can be speeding when you're on the bumper in front of you if the other guy is not speeding. So that's about it.”
Keeping his cool, Harvick did not let the speeding penalty ruin his day. Fighting back with a solid race car and more quick stops on pit road, the No. 29 was able to charge to the front in the closing laps of the race.
Running around Kyle Busch for much of the afternoon, Harvick finally had enough of the Joe Gibbs Racing driver on Lap 243. With green flag stops cycling through, Busch looked to put a cross over move on Harvick as they came off the fourth corner. As Busch drove across Harvick’s nose, the two made contact and the No. 18 Toyota was sent sliding into the inside wall. The caution stuck Hamlin a lap down and ruined his title hopes.
“He raced me like a clown all day,” Harvick said. “Three wide, on the back bumper, running into me, and I just had enough.”
Sitting beside him in the media center, Hamlin added, “Sounds like your teammates raced me all day.” To which, Harvick looked over and said, “I just parked yours.”
Busch was none too pleased with Harvick’s move either.
“It’s just a guy that doesn’t have his head on straight apparently today,” he said of Harvick. “I thought everything was good. I talked to him in the pre-race in the driver’s meeting and all of that, but he’s such a two-faced guy it just doesn’t matter.”
When the dust settled and Johnson was busy hoisting his fifth Sprint Cup trophy, Hamlin was able to get past Harvick in the standings to finish second, 39 points behind Johnson, with Harvick two points behind Hamlin.
Say what you will about the Chase system, but this year’s battle between Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick lived up to the hype. All three went into the day with a chance to leave a champion, but in the in it was the experience of the No. 48 team that carried the day.
Some may not like him, others may love him, but either way the accomplishments of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are simply amazing to watch. The word dynasty is one this team tends to shy away from, yet they live up to it in every definition.
Five years, five championships, each won in different styles against different competitors. With the mark of seven championship set before them, who says they cannot go out the next two years and repeat?
“The 2010 season ended two hours ago. And 2011 started two hours ago,” Knaus said in a serious tone. “We have started preparing at Hendrick Motorsports for next year and we are full force to make sure that we take a better product to the racetrack next year, and it's going to be so. So we are hard at it.”
That is bad news for the competition.
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