THE INTERACTION was brief, lasting only a few seconds, but it summed up the story of the 2008 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Moments after Sunday's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, Carl Edwards, his face lined with disappointment, strode into Victory Lane. There he gave a forced smile and a high five to race winner Jimmie Johnson. Edwards, who had finished fourth, then disappeared into the night, leaving Johnson alone in the spotlight.
With one race left in the 10-race Chase, this much is certain: Johnson will be champion again unless he crashes or suffers a mechanical failure on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He leads Edwards by 141 points, so even if Edwards wins and leads the most laps at Homestead, Johnson need only finish 36th or better to become just the second driver in NASCAR history to take three straight Cup titles.
"It's probably over," Edwards said after he left Johnson in Victory Lane. "We won't give up, because you never know if Jimmie will have a problem or not. But I can't say I like my chances."
He shouldn't. Not only is Johnson the best championship closer since Cale Yarborough was winning his three straight titles 30 years ago, but Johnson also can afford to be cautious at Homestead. He'll probably spend most of the afternoon surrounded by his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates, who'll give him more protection than a presidential motorcade. What's more, Homestead is a 1.5-mile oval, and Johnson thrives on that kind of intermediate-length track. In his last 10 starts at 1.5-milers, Johnson has scored more points than any driver except Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton. He knows what he has to do to secure the title, but he adds, "If we can go out there and win the race, hell, yeah, let's do it."
At Phoenix, Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, showed once again why they're the class of the garage. After winning the pole last Friday, Johnson struggled during the final practice on Saturday, reaching just 16th fastest on the speed chart. Suddenly he appeared vulnerable. But on Sunday morning Knaus overhauled the setup of the number 48 Chevy, changing three springs, four shocks and the sway bar. Presto! Once the green flag flew, Johnson dominated, leading 217 of the 313 laps to take his seventh win of the season.
But it isn't a superior car that has made Johnson the top driver of the Chase era. With 95 laps left on Sunday, he made the kind of move that defines a champion. On a restart he was in second behind Jamie McMurray. As the two charged into Turn 1, Johnson took the high line. McMurray went to block, but Johnson dived to the low line and passed McMurray before they were even through Turn 2. It was a stirring display of guts and car control, and as Kurt Busch, who was in third at the time, watched the pass unfold, he took time to appreciate Johnson's talent. "It was unbelievable to watch that," Busch said. "He cut and bobbed and weaved, and he was gone. That's hard to beat."
Indeed it is. For the third year in a row, it doesn't look as if anyone will be doing that to Johnson.
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Lars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.
Things may get a little slow during Jimmie Johnson's 267-lap victory parade this Sunday, but there's plenty at stake for the drivers behind him.
1 Can Jeff Gordon (right) get to Victory Lane? The four-time Cup champion hasn't gone winless in a season since his rookie year of 1993, and Homestead is the last chance to race his way into the winner's circle in 2008.
2 Can Sam Hornish Jr. hold off Regan Smith to win Rookie of the Year honors? The former Indy 500 champ leads Smith in the rookie points 199--196 entering the season finale.
3 Will old scores be settled? In 2006 Ryan Newman wrecked Juan Pablo Montoya at Homestead after the two had tangled earlier in the race. This is the final chance this season for drivers to exact revenge for any slights.
PEAK PERFORMER Johnson (48) led 217 of 313 laps in his seventh victory of 2008.