Jimmie Johnson couldn't have appeared any happier, standing next to his number 48 Chevy in the New England sunshine and cooing into the face of his 10-week-old daughter, Genevieve Marie, just 30 minutes before the start of Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The winner at the same track in June, Johnson, the four-time and reigning Sprint Cup champion, had been heating up of late—in his last two starts he'd had back-to-back top five finishes for the first time in more than two months—and now was widely regarded as the man to beat for the title.
Not anymore. Some three hours after kissing his baby for luck, Johnson emerged from his beat-up Chevy, his smile gone, his eyes tired. It had been a dreadful afternoon for the 35-year-old champ: He'd spun twice, been forced to pit under green because of a loose wheel, and wound up 25th—the worst finish of the 12 Chase contenders. The poor performance dropped Johnson from second to seventh in the standings after Chase race number 1 and suddenly made him a long shot to win his fifth straight title. "We need to be spotless over these next nine races," Johnson said afterward, "and get some help."
The biggest winner on Sunday wasn't Clint Bowyer (although he did take his first checkered flag since May 2008 and jumped from 12th to second in the standings) but Denny Hamlin, who drove one of the finest races of his five-year Cup career. With 85 laps remaining, Hamlin was powering around the Magic Mile in fourth place when a hard-charging Carl Edwards lost control of his number 99 Ford and spun Hamlin's number 11 Toyota. The incident reflected the edgy tenor of the race. "You could definitely tell the Chase had started out there by how aggressive everyone was," said Jeff Gordon, who finished sixth.
Hamlin, who had won a series-high six races this year, avoided hitting the wall but dropped to 22nd place, and suddenly his season, like Johnson's, appeared to be on the brink. But then Hamlin calmly—and cleanly—wove his way through the field over the final 80 laps to finish second. This is precisely how Johnson won his four championships, salvaging top fives on days that could have been far worse, and the bone-jarring high fives Hamlin gave his crew afterward underscored the importance of the comeback. Said Hamlin, "We just made a heck of a charge at the end."
Tony Stewart, meanwhile, made a heck of a mistake at the end. Leading for 50 laps as the race wound down, Stewart gambled that he had enough fuel in his tank to make it to the finish line. He didn't, running out just as he headed into the final lap. So instead of finishing in the top five—a likely result if he had stopped on pit road for a splash—he coasted to the finish line and wound up 24th, falling from sixth to 11th in the standings. Gambles, Stewart should have known, simply aren't worth it in the Chase, where there is no margin for error.
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. went into the the final 10 races of the 2010 Sprint Cup season with a simple plan: Treat them as glorified test sessions in the hope of discovering a setup that he can use in his number 88 Chevy in 2011. So far, so good. On Sunday, Earnhardt (below) finished fourth—his best result since another fourth at Daytona on July 3. Earnhardt is in the throes of perhaps the worst season of his 11-year Cup career—he's currently 18th in the standings—but his team owner, Rick Hendrick, has said repeatedly that Earnhardt will stay with crew chief Lance McGrew in '11. "This year has been tough, but I do see signs of hope," says Earnhardt. "I feel like me and Lance are developing something special. We're getting closer to where we want to be."
JEFF ZELEVANSKY/GETTY IMAGES (CARS)
COMING AND GOING Hamiln (11) recovered from this spin to take second, but Johnson (48) faded to 25th.
NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (EARNHARDT)