Although Johnson was the winner at the end of the season, he had to come from behind to do it. And from Daytona to Homestead, there was some of the best racing in years.
Here’s SPEED.com’s top five Sprint Cup races of 2010:
1. Aaron’s 499, Talladega Superspeedway — Drama, competition and — yes, danger — have long been staples of the Talladega experience and 2010 was no exception, as Kevin Harvick wowed the Talladega crowd with a last-lap, last-second pass of Jamie McMurray to claim victory in the Aaron’s 499. Juan Pablo Montoya finished third, followed by Denny Hamlin, and Mark Martin.
With his stunning move, Harvick broke a 115-race winless streak, dating back to the 2007 Daytona 500. Earlier in the weekend, Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin talked in detail about how to make the last-lap pass.
“We made a plan before the race, and I'm telling you, every piece of it played out exactly how we wanted to play it,” Harvick said. “We put four tires on the car when we wanted to, we pitted when we wanted to, we stayed out of the pack when we wanted to until it was time. And then coming into the last lap, that's exactly how we planned it out on paper.”
Harvick’s No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet crossed the start-finish line just 0.011 seconds ahead of McMurray’s No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Chevrolet. It was the second-closest finish in Talladega history and the eighth-closest finish in NASCAR since the advent of electronic timing and scoring in 1993.
2. AAA Texas 500, Texas Motor Speedway — Greg Biffle dominated the first third of the AAA Texas 500 in his Roush Fenway Racing Ford. But the big story early on was the poor performance of Jimmie Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports pit crew, which consistently cost the four-time defending champion key positions on the track.
On Lap 191, Martin Truex Jr. crashed on the backstretch to bring out another caution. Under caution, Jeff Burton drilled Jeff Gordon hard, sending the No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet nose first into the wall. That led to an angry confrontation on the backstretch, Gordon shoving Burton a couple of times before cooler heads prevailed.
With Gordon out of the race, Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, huddled with Gordon’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, and made a shocking decision: Knaus took all of Gordon’s over-the-wall crew to service the No. 48 for the rest of the race.
Biffle had the fastest car, but a broken gear in his transmission made him a sitting duck on restarts, and Denny Hamlin was able to take over the lead on Lap 306 and hold on for the final 28 circuits of the race, to win over Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Joey Logano and Biffle.
Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford, unleashed some incendiary post-race comments. “We played our game,” Ford said. “I stayed focused on what we needed to do, and I feel like ... it (the crew swap) was kind of a desperation move. But it's something that — I won't say that race team — that Jimmie, Chad and Rick (Hendrick) needed to do if they wanted to win a championship because they just took their team out of it. They removed their team. Their team got them to this point and they pulled them out, so this is more about trying to win a championship for the company and not the team.”
3. Ford 400, 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.
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 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 onto 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.
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. But it wasn’t enough.
“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 tow 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.”
4. Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500, Martinsville Speedway — The boys had at it again, this time at the tiny paperclip of a track known as Martinsville Speedway, where Denny Hamlin evaded mayhem to capture the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500.
Jeff Gordon was in the lead and only about 30 yards away from taking the white flag when a caution came out for Kyle Busch’s spin in Turn 3. Had Gordon made it to the white flag before the yellow waved, he would have been declared the winner of the race and broken a nearly year-long winless streak. Instead, the race finished under green-white-checkered conditions, and Hamlin was on fresher tires, thanks to a pit stop he had made on Lap 493 of the race.
When the green flag flew for the final two-lap sprint to the finish, Gordon was leading on the inside lane, with Ryan Newman to his outside. Matt Kenseth was third, with Hamlin fourth right behind Newman.
As they headed into Turn 1 on Lap 507, Kenseth put the chrome horn to Gordon, using his front bumper to move the No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet to the middle of the track, where it was sandwiched between Kenseth and Newman.
On the backstretch, Gordon and Kenseth made contact again, and when the field rushed into Turn 3, Gordon put his left-front fender into the right rear of Kenseth’s No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, sending it up the track toward the outside wall. But the contact broke Gordon’s momentum just enough to let the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Hamlin and Joey Logano dive underneath to take over the top two spots. And that’s how they finished, with Gordon third, followed by Newman and Martin Truex Jr. Kenseth ended up 18th.
5. Kobalt Tools 500, Phoenix International Raceway — Denny Hamlin could taste his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Fresh off a dramatic late-race victory at Texas Motor Speedway, the Virginia native arrived at Phoenix International Raceway with a 33-point lead over Jimmie Johnson and all the confidence in the world. He and his Joe Gibbs Racing squad were on top of their game and set to deliver the knockout punch on Johnson.
And when the green flag fell at the one-mile PIR oval, Hamlin put the hammer down. He took the lead for the first time on Lap 66 of the 312-lap event, and would lead 190 of the next 200 laps, while Johnson spent most of that time back around the periphery of the top 10. A victory at PIR would all but seal the championship for Hamlin and give him an insurmountable lead heading into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Hamlin was the defending race winner.
But it was not to be.
Pole-sitter Carl Edwards, who was buried in the throes of a 70-race winless streak, blew past Hamlin on Lap 266 and kept his No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford out front for the remainder of the race to score an emotional victory.
Hamlin had bigger issues, though.
He had to pit for fuel on Lap 298, while Johnson and Harvick managed to nurse their fuel loads from the final caution period, which ended on Lap 239, until the end of the race. The extra pit stop meant that instead of winning a race that he had dominated — and sewing up the championship in the process — Hamlin finished 12th, with Johnson and Harvick coming home fifth and sixth, respectively. That cut Hamlin’s points lead by more than half, with Johnson only 15 back and Harvick 31 in arrears.
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.