In each of the last four years Jimmie Johnson has rolled into NASCAR's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a sizable lead in the standings. And each year rival drivers have lamented that Johnson hasn't had to perform at his best when it matters most, that he's been able to coast to his unprecedented four straight titles without anyone charging hard and fast and violently in his rearview mirror at Homestead. Many even whispered—from the sanctuary of not for attribution—that they honestly believed Johnson would flat-out choke if enough pressure were ever applied.
Johnson has heard these whispers. And late on Sunday afternoon at Phoenix International Raceway, as he walked down an empty pit road and squinted into the falling desert sun, he looked and sounded genuinely excited about this weekend—a fresh opportunity to add to his legacy. After finishing fifth at Phoenix, Johnson now trails Denny Hamlin by 15 points, which amounts to roughly three positions on the track this Sunday (depending on bonus points earned), and is the closest the championship standings have been with one race left since the Chase began in 2004. "People have been saying for years that I can't come from behind to win a championship, but they don't get that I've overcome pressure-filled situations to put myself in good positions at Homestead," Johnson said. "I love where I'm at right now. Bring it on. I just hope Denny doesn't have any trouble sleeping this week and he doesn't hear every rattle of the car in his dreams."
Midway through Sunday's race Hamlin, who led a race-high 190 laps at PIR, was pulling away from the field and at one point had built his lead over Johnson in the standings to more than 100 points. But with 14 laps left and running second, he pitted for fuel. Johnson, who had followed Hamlin into the pits with 88 laps to go, stayed out on the track, easing off the throttle to conserve gas. It was a risky call by Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus—if Johnson had run dry the championship essentially would have been decided—but the go-slow-to-gain-ground strategy worked to perfection. Johnson was running on fumes when he sailed across the finish line seven spots ahead of Hamlin and one ahead of Kevin Harvick, who trails Hamlin by 46 points and still has a puncher's chance to win his first title on Sunday.
For Hamlin, Homestead will be all about resilience. "This is one of the bigger letdowns I've had," he said moments after slamming a water bottle to the ground in frustration. "I'm going to try to use this for motivation next week."
So who has the edge? History favors Hamlin, the reigning race winner at Homestead, but something very powerful is on Johnson's side: the delicious chance to accomplish something new—and to silence the whispers.
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SHORT TRACK Jump Starter
It might be too early to pinpoint championship favorites for 2011, but Carl Edwards put his name in the hat last weekend at Phoenix, where he led the final 46 laps to end a 70-race winless streak. This was no fluke: He has steadily gained speed throughout the Chase. The setup on his number 99 Ford was off just a tick early in the 10-race playoff—Edwards frequently felt as if he was about to lose control of his car as he rounded corners—but the veteran driver and his crew chief, Bob Osborne, have solved that problem. How the duo performs on Sunday at Homestead could be telling, because Denny Hamlin, who won the race last year, has gone on to flourish in 2010.
CHRIS TROTMAN/GETTY IMAGES (CAR)
RISK, REWARD A bold gamble on fuel mileage by Knaus (inset, right) saved Johnson's title hopes.
NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (JOHNSON AND KNAUS)
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ROSS D. FRANKLIN/AP (EDWARDS)