Jimmie Johnson ran a nearly flawless race on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, deftly avoiding accidents during three hours of bumper-car-style racing at NASCAR's shortest track (.526 mile) and generally reminding everyone in the Cup garage that he's the best stock car driver of his generation. But for all his efforts, Johnson did not have a car capable of beating race-winner Tony Stewart, and his second-place finish unofficially marked the end of something: his reign atop the sport.
With three races left, Johnson, the five-time defending Sprint Cup champion, trails Carl Edwards by 43 points. That Johnson could gain only seven points on Edwards, who finished ninth at Martinsville, underscored that the deficit is simply too big for him to overcome by the finish of the season finale at Homestead on Nov. 20. "At the start of the year I said I thought [Edwards] would be the guy to focus on," Johnson said. "I definitely know what he's capable of."
Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, committed several uncharacteristic mistakes during this Chase. Johnson ran out of gas on the final lap of the postseason opener at Chicagoland Speedway (he finished 10th); he wrecked hard at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 15 after putting his number 48 Chevy in a precarious position (he wound up 34th); and he waited too long at Talladega Superspeedway to make his typical late-race charge from the back of the pack (he came in 26th).
Yet Johnson, who at age 36 is still in the prime of his career, will certainly be a force in the Cup series next year and for years to come. Knaus will return as his crew chief in 2012, and all the key crewmen from the number 48 team are also expected to be back. All of which means one thing: Mr. Five-Time will again be the driver to beat.
THE RACE FOR 13TH
One of the more compelling subplots of the fall has been the battle among the non-Chase drivers to be the best of the rest, to generate momentum that they can carry into next season. NASCAR no longer offers a $1 million bonus for taking the top spot among drivers not racing for the Cup—as it did from 2004 through '06—but this year's fight for 13th should come down to the final lap of the year. Clint Bowyer leads Greg Biffle by 24 points and Kasey Kahne by 25, but the schedule sets up best for Biffle. He has one career win at Texas Motor Speedway and three at Homestead-Miami Speedway. How many career victories does Bowyer have at the three remaining tracks? Zero.
THREE FOR THREE
With three races left in the Sprint Cup season the Chase is essentially a three-way battle. Carl Edwards has an eight-point lead over Tony Stewart, who won at Martinsville, and a 21-point edge over Kevin Harvick. Here's how the road (or roads) ahead looks for the trio.
Texas Motor Speedway
AAA Texas 500
One of NASCAR's fastest tracks is also a breeding ground for wrecks. Edwards has crashed in two of his last four starts on the 1.5-mile quad-oval, including during the 2009 Chase.
Phoenix International Raceway
Kobalt Tools 500
PIR is the Chase's new wild-card track because the one-mile tri-oval was recently repaved and reconfigured. Harvick finished fourth at the old PIR in late February.
Statistically, Homestead is Edwards's best track on the Cup circuit. He's the defending race winner here and has a career average finish of 5.7. Stewart has two career victories at HMS.
BRIAN CZOBAT/AUTOSTOCK (JOHNSON AND CREW, BIFFLE CAR)
RETURN ENGAGEMENT Coming back for Johnson (48) in 2012 will be crew chief Knaus and every major member of his pit team.
BRIAN CZOBAT/AUTOSTOCK (BIFFLE CAR)
ASHLEY R. DICKERSON/CAL SPORT MEDIA (EDWARDS)
KEVIN LILES/US PRESSWIRE (STEWART)
JEFFERY A. SALTER (HARVICK)