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CUP: Johnson, Edwards Score In South Florida

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This week, SPEED.com counts down the five best NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of the 2010 season. No. 3 is the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway will always be remembered as the race in which Jimmie Johnson won his fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint championship and Denny Hamlin lost his first.

Oh, yeah, and by the way, Carl Edwards did alright for himself as he finished the season with his second consecutive victory following 70 winless races in a row.

Throw in another strong performance by Kevin Harvick and the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup became one for the ages, not settled until the final lap when Edwards took the checkered flag ahead of Johnson and Harvick. Hamlin, who came into the final race of the year with a lead of 15 points on Johnson and 31 on Harvick, finished a disappointing 14th.

And when the race was over, the closest three-way championship battle since the original Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2004 ended with Johnson taking his fifth straight title by a margin of 39 points over Hamlin and 41 over Harvick.

“Jimmie, you are a rock star, my friend,” Chad Knaus radioed after Johnson finished 1.608 seconds behind Edwards. “You have proven it time and time again. And you damn did it today, my friend.”

Early in the race, Hamlin made an unforced error that cost him dearly. He qualified a lowly 37th, but was up to 19th on Lap 24 when disaster struck.

That was when Hamlin was battling Greg Biffle coming through Turn 4. As the two cars exited the corner, it appeared Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota drifted up almost imperceptibly into Biffle's Roush Fenway Racing Ford, or maybe Biffle’s car came down a little. However it happened, the two cars made slight but significant contact. That, in turn sent Hamlin spinning into the grass apron, where he damaged the splitter, the right-front nose of the car, and more importantly, the alignment of the right-front tire.

“It looks like I was on the inside of him and somebody went three-wide on him (Biffle) right at the last minute, and he came down and got into our right front,” said Hamlin. “Nobody's fault, at all. Just one of those things where three cars, it was not enough space for three cars at that point.”

For most of the rest of the race, Hamlin was in absolute catch-up mode, as crew chief Mike Ford tried to get his damaged Toyota dialed in. At times, Hamlin was able to move through the field, and after a yellow flag on Lap 165 for Kevin Conway’s spin, Hamlin’s crew busted off a 12.8-second pit stop that put him on track ahead of Johnson, who had a 15.2-second stop.

At that moment, it appeared Hamlin’s title hopes were still very viable.

But Hamlin’s advantage would prove short-lived. After a debris caution sent the field down pit road on Lap 189, Johnson’s Hendrick team ripped off a 12.7-second stop that put the No. 48 Chevrolet back ahead of the No. 11 Toyota for good.

“We had a good pit stop, put us in front of that 48 (Johnson) and actually out-ran them that one run and spaced ourselves from him, but that was the absolute best the car could be for the conditions of the car with it being knocked around,” said Hamlin. “So that was the best-case scenario and as soon as those guys got — we came back in, we were actually ahead of them. We had less than stellar pit stop that put us back about four spots behind him and he never looked back.”

Hamlin pitted again on Lap 239, his fate sealed for good five laps later, when Kyle Busch crashed. That caught Hamlin a lap down, and although he was able to take the wave-around to get back on the lead lap, he couldn’t pit for fresh rubber.

He restarted the race 18th and finished 14th, 39 points behind Johnson.

“Our car was really fast at the beginning,” Hamlin said. “I mean, just unbelievably fast at the beginning, and I knew we had a car that could contend for a win, and obviously when we got in that incident on the back straightaway, it tore up the front and knocked the toe out and obviously the car did not drive as well for the rest of the day.

“We just tried to patch it and work on it the best we could but just wasn't the car that it was at the beginning. It's just part of racing.”

Johnson, meanwhile, was on cruise control for most of the race. He restarted second on Lap 251 after Harvick dumped Busch to bring out the final caution on Lap 244. Johnson couldn’t catch Edwards over the final 17 laps, but he pulled away from Harvick to secure the title.

“I’m just beside myself,” Johnson said in victory lane. “Four was amazing. Now I have to figure out what the hell to say about winning five of these things, because everybody is going to want to know what it means. I don't know. It is pretty damn awesome — I can tell you that.”

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.