At the risk of stating the obvious to the knowledgeable racing fans that visit the pages of Frontstretch, let me say that there is never anything for sure in auto racing: the outcome must always be considered in doubt until the checkered flag falls at the end of that final lap. With that in mind, anyone that chooses not to watch the season-ending and championship-determining race this Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, I’ve just got one thing to tell you: you may be bitterly disappointed. Don’t be surprised if you shake your head in disbelief that night, hearing final results on SportsCenter that were radically different from what you assumed to be a foregone conclusion after Sunday’s race at Phoenix.
I don’t mean to undeservedly hype this week’s Ford 400, but we have the possibility for one heck of a spectacular, nail-biting conclusion to the Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship. Of course, how dramatic the race does, in fact, become is almost completely dependent on how points leader Jimmie Johnson performs. Johnson, who leads second-place Matt Kenseth by 63 points in the standings, is certainly in the “driver’s seat” to win his first championship… or so it would seem. Johnson, who has twice been the bridesmaid to the title, can clinch his coveted crown simply by finishing no lower than 12th.
The last five weeks of the Chase to the Nextel Cup Championship, in which Johnson has recorded five consecutive top-two finishes, have convinced a surprising number of fans and writers that he is a cinch to win the 2006 championship. But as impressive as the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 team and driver have been of late, they are not invincible. You simply can’t hand a driver the trophy when there is still a race to be raced!
For all those expecting a Johnson romp to the title, remember this: Homestead would not be high on his choice of tracks to run the most important race of his career. It is doubtful that anyone in the No. 48 camp has forgotten that a year ago Johnson, then second in the standings, suffered a cut tire that relegated him to a 40th-place finish in the race and dropped him to fifth in the year-end point standings. Homestead-Miami Speedway has not been one of the tracks where Johnson can brag about his performance: he has an average finish of just 15.6 in five Cup starts. That average makes a 12th-place run seem far more difficult than most would lead you to believe.
Johnson’s starting position has not been particularly stellar at this South Florida track, either. In the last two season finales, Johnson has taken the green flag in 32nd and 39th. As race fans know, the further back a driver starts, the greater the inherit danger of wrecking becomes; 30 or more racecars in front of Johnson vying for track position would not be a situation that would automatically lead to the No. 48 coming through the field unscathed. Wrecks happen… mistakes are made… and spotters can fail.
There are, as wizened race fans know, innumerable other events that can unfold which would eliminate Johnson from the race… from something as innocent as mechanical failure to the truly bizarre. One only needs to look back to last month’s UAW-Ford 500 at Talladega, for one such instance; on the final lap, Johnson was wrecked by his own teammate, Brian Vickers, while battling for the lead. That error resulted in Johnson finishing one lap down and in the 24th position, losing valuable points that would have otherwise made his trip to Homestead a mere formality in clinching the title.
Should misfortune befall Johnson, resulting in a poor finish for him this Sunday, the storyline will become truly intriguing. The broadcast crews will be swimming in possibilities as the race proceeds and the other four championship drivers, Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. jockey their ultimate opportunity to capitalize. Each of these drivers has his own story to be told… and are hungry for their chance to tell it.
Kenseth won the NASCAR Cup championship in 2003 and has been hanging on to his hopes of becoming a two-time champion the last month with second-rate performances. Kenseth only leads third-place drivers Harvick and Hamlin by a measly 27 points. The driver of the No. 17 DeWalt Ford is so down on his luck that Johnson failing to finish this week’s race doesn’t, at least in his mind, mean he would inherit the championship. Speaking last week about the possibility, Kenseth predicted, “Only if he blows up (will we have a chance), and we’re running so bad right now that I don’t feel we can beat anybody.”
If Kenseth’s concerns about his team’s performance at Homestead prove to be accurate, it would seem that last week’s Phoenix winner Harvick could be poised to overcome Kenseth’s advantage and take home the championship. This would result in Harvick becoming the first driver in history to win both the NASCAR Cup Series championship and the NASCAR Busch Series championship in the same season. Harvick, who replaced the still greatly revered Dale Earnhardt Sr. following his untimely and tragic death in 2001, could bring the NASCAR community together with the first Cup title for RCR since his passing.
Hamlin is a rookie, but he’s tied for third place entering Homestead, very much in contention for the Nextel Cup. A rookie! Winning the title? Unheard of… if circumstances allowed for this young driver, who has continued to run with the “big boys” all season long, to take home the trophy, viewers will simply be stunned. With 27 points between him and a fading Kenseth, oh, man!
Trailing Harvick and Hamlin by 25 points and Johnson by 105 is Earnhardt Jr. Junior has to be considered, in any set of circumstances that unfold at Homestead-Miami, as the “dark horse” to win the championship. But, if the race were to take unforeseen twists and turns, putting Junior in the right position at the right time… there were be a frenzy created like none that has ever occurred before on the American sports scene. The excitement of the most popular driver in NASCAR winning an improbable title will induce a post-race emotion by fans that would be of unimaginable scale.
Perhaps Johnson’s run of good luck and great runs will continue; if so, he will deservedly become the 2006 champion. It’s very possible, however, that he’ll stumble in this last leg of the championship contest. If he does falter in this final event of the Chase, the possibilities become almost endless for a thrilling conclusion to the 2006 race season.
There are 267 more laps to run before it is determined who will be the 2006 Nextel Cup champion. Five drivers, depending on circumstances, could still be victorious. It’s not a race any fan should miss… because until the checkered flag falls, you simply just never know.