Jimmie Johnson, responding with a solid performance while those challenging him for the Sprint Cup championship wrestled with costly mistakes, finished second in the Ford 400 Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway and won a record fifth straight title.
Johnson, who followed Carl Edwards to the race finish line, became only the third driver since 1975 to come from behind in the season’s final race to win the championship. Denny Hamlin, who led by 15 points entering the race, ran into a snake’s pit of problems on the final day of the NASCAR season and fell from first to second in points.
“We didn’t always have the most speed, but we had the most heart,” said Johnson, who finished 39 points in front of Hamlin. “We proved it at the end of Chase. I can’t believe this. Four was amazing. Now I’ve got to figure out what it means to win five of these things. I don’t know what to say.”
Hamlin was down after a tough finish to the season.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” said a dejected Hamlin, whose Toyota was damaged in an early-race crash with Greg Biffle. “Our car just wasn’t the same [after the accident]. Our car was lighting-fast up until that wreck. When we hit the 16 [Biffle], it just knocked the toe out, and the car didn’t drive the same the rest of the way.
“We did our best to try to repair it. It just wasn’t as fast as before.”On a dramatic, sun-splashed day in south Florida, Kevin Harvick battled from behind after being penalized for speeding on pit road but couldn’t make up the gap. He finished third in the race and third in points.
Harvick, who was involved in a late-race incident with Kyle Busch that left the drivers snarling at each other through the media, said his team “went down swinging. That’s what we came here to do – to go as fast as we could.
“Those guys just outran us that last restart. All in all, I’m proud of all my guys. We did everything we wanted to do today except win the race.”
Hamlin’s gameplan – to move up through the field quickly after starting 37th – was forced into an audible very early in the race when he hit Biffle as the two cars exited the second turn on lap 25. The contact damaged Hamlin’s right front and sent him into a slide and onto the grass apron adjacent to the track.
Hamlin’s Toyota wound up with minimal damage relative to the serious nature of the wreck, but he spent some time in the pits for repairs to the right-side splitter braces and the area around the right front wheel, and the car was subpar the rest of the day.
Hamlin restarted 37th on the ensuing green flag and began clicking off positions. On lap 67, he pitted a few laps earlier because he thought one of his tires was deflating. That sparked a round of pit stops by everyone in the lead group.
After the green-flag stops, Martin Truex Jr. held the lead, while Johnson was racing Harvick for the seventh spot and Hamlin was struggling in 16th.
On lap 141, Hamlin narrowly avoided disaster as he dropped to the inside to avoid the spinning car of Joey Logano, whose crash into the outside wall produced the day’s fifth caution.
On the ensuing green flag, Edwards was first, while Johnson and Harvick were ready to race for third. Hamlin was 21st.
Hamlin picked up the pace considerably after the next round of caution-flag pit stops. Changes by the Joe Gibbs Racing crew gave the 11 car a considerable boost, while Johnson fell to seventh to 13th on pit road because of a slow pit stop.
After the green flag flew, Hamlin began clicking off positions and moved into the in-race lead in the point standings.
The race took another dramatic turn on lap 188. The leaders dropped onto pit road during a caution period, and Harvick’s crew turned in a stellar pit stop to boost him into the lead. But NASCAR officials immediately called Harvick for speeding entering pit road, sending him to the rear of the field (29th).
Harvick protested the call over his team’s radio channel, saying he could not have been speeding. “That’s just them doing what they do best,” he said of officials. After the race, he stuck by his guns, saying he was not speeding.
Later, Busch slipped in front of Harvick, and Harvick bumped Busch in the rear, sending Busch’s car sliding. It ultimately caught fire, and Busch climbed out in clouds of smoke.
Busch said he was hit by “a guy who apparently doesn’t have his head on straight. He’s such a two-faced guy that it doesn’t matter.”
Harvick said Busch “raced me like a clown all day. He cut in front of me, and I didn’t lift.”
Edwards dominated the race in winning for the second straight week. Following him in the finish order were Johnson, Harvick, Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.