Jimmie Johnson placed his hands in the metaphorical cement on the sidewalk of NASCAR history, clinching his fourth consecutive title by finishing fifth at the season ending Ford 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Johnson, and his no.48 eventually took the title by 141 points over Mark Martin, with Jeff Gordon in third overall, marking the first time the top three final positions have been taken by drivers from the same team, with the trio all hailing from the Hendrick Motorsports stable.
The winner, though by the nature of final races he is soon to be forgotten, was Denny Hamlin. The Gibbs driver started a lowly 38th but improved through the race as it passed from day to night, eventually working his way to the front, leading three times totalling 71 laps, enough to snatch the final bonus points of the season en route to victory.
In Victory Lane, after climbing from the car and treating his team to a now seemingly customary shower of a sponsors soft drink you have to believe the brand would rather see drunk than used as ammunition, Denny was quick to point out just how good his team had been, not just for Homestead but for the whole of the ten race Chase.
“We're gonna be there I promise you, in the next couple of years we're gonna win the championship,” said the driver. “Call a DNF a hundred points,” he added, referring to Fontana, Lowe's and Talladega. “And we're right there [with Jimmie Johnson].”
“If we had just averaged seventh or eighth I think in those races, then we’re out on the front stage celebrating right now.”
Hamlin and his team were not the only ones who ended 2009 on a high. For the second week running Richard Childress Racing driver Jeff Burton finished second. Childress' squad have endured a torrid season, slumping from having all three drivers in last year's Chase to having none of an expanded four car team make the final 12 and fail to win a single race. Improving on their Phoenix showing Burton led nineteen laps, and was joined in the challenge by Kevin Harvick, who led 56 and finished third.
However, while some finished their seasons with a flourish others saw out the year under clouds of mechanical failure, accidents or retribution.
The retribution, in not much of a surprise, came between Tony Stewart and Juan Montoya. As Stewart slid past Montoya the Columbian bumper the rear of the no.14 car, a move Stewart expressed his displeasure at by turning down into Montoya, slicing the right-front tyre, and sending Montoya into the turn 3 wall, collecting his out-going Earnhardt-Ganassi teammate Martin Truex Jr. Only 40 lap later the cycle was complete as Montoya, having returned to the track after repairs to his car, ignored NASCAR's warnings (a move that would see him parked for two laps) to run-up on Stewart out of turn 4 and spin the double champion into the inside wall, eventually falling to a 22nd place finish.
However, perhaps the unluckiest man was Australian Marcos Ambrose, who of late has been challenging Montoya for their own slice of history, by becoming the first international driver to win an oval race. Following a astounding qualifying Ambrose quickly took the lead, passing Johnson on lap 10 to take the lead. However, his fortunes soon changes, cutting a tyre and having to pit under green, before encountering battery problems, only rectified after a lengthy stay in the garage, even then managing to bring out two yellow flags after he returned.
Homestead was also a fitting end to a damp squib of a season for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his fans. Running a trademark high line around the track he made progress early, moving into the top-ten, before scraping the wall several times, at least one flat tyre and several unscheduled pitstops, his 28th place finish on the lead lap owing more to the luck of receiving the wave around on a late caution than a great recovery drive.
Unusually, since their introduction, the double file restarts caused few problems, though Jeff Burton's car was often visibly slow to get to speed. What they did encourage was great racing, with the race serving as a reason for a second date a Homestead as the graded banking allowed three wide racing throughout the night.
But the night belonged to Jimmie Johnson. Though he failed to add to his seven wins of the season the race served to showcase the complete package they have become. This was especially evident after both Jimmie and title rival Mark Martin pitted during the caution for the first Montoya/Stewart skirmish. The stop, while others stayed out dropped the pair to 23rd and 25th for the restart. The difference soon told, while Johnson was able to carve his way though the traffic with relative ease, Martin found himself mired in the dirty air in traffic, between drivers racing only for pride, rather than a title, with veteran watching the gap, both on the track and in the points to Johnson expand lap after lap, a period he never truly recovered from, never able to make up the ground to Johnson and eventually finishing twelfth.
So it was Johnson who parked up on inside of turn 2 as the officials assembled the stage for Bill France Jr. to present the trophy to Johnson.
And so, it is perhaps fitting to have Johnson's words close this report.
“The last four years have been just unbelievable. To love the sport like I do and respect it like I do, and the history, the pioneers of this sport from Bill France, Sr., to the Petty family, you go through many eras up to Mr. Hendrick and what he’s done over the last 25, to look at all of that and to have done something that’s never been done in the sport before is so, so amazing and something I am so proud of.”
“I’ve always set my marks high and really wanted to try to set high marks and all those kinds of things, but I had no clue this stuff would happen. Just so honoured, so happy, so fortunate.”