Carl Edwards knew what he had to do on Sunday to give himself a chance. He needed to lead the most laps, and win the race.
Check and check.
Edwards led a race-high 157 laps, but still needed to stretch his fuel mileage to claim his series leading ninth victory of the year in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. However, Edwards’s best was still not good enough.
“I’m sure glad we won today’s race because it will make it a little bit easier to deal with the offseason and coming so close to the championship,” Edwards said during the post-race press conference. “Second in both series (Sprint Cup and Nationwide) is not first, but it’s definitely not something to be ashamed of.”
Jimmie Johnson, despite qualifying a lowly 30th, drove his way up through the field and ran in the position 8-12 range for the majority of the race. A timely two-tire pit stop under caution gave Johnson the lead on lap 201, which earned him five crucial bonus points. After that point, the No. 48 team played it safe, including a pit stop for fuel late. From there, Johnson drove to a 15th-place finish. The finish tied his worst finish in the Chase, but it was still enough to give him his third consecutive Sprint Cup championship.
After the race, Johnson was at a loss for words.
“It hasn’t sunken in yet, but I’m just too proud of this race team and the fight that this team has had in it over the course of the year,” Johnson said in regards to winning the third championship in a row.
As a result of the fuel conservation runs at the end, it was more than seven seconds back to second-place finisher Kevin Harvick. Harvick was the highest finisher that made an extra pit stop to top off the fuel cell.
“The Shell-Pennzoil guys made a great call on pit road to come in and top the thing off,” Harvick said after the race. “We were here to try to win the race and get fourth in points. We got half of that accomplished [as a result of our call].”
Kasey Kahne, who had an ill-handling car early in the race, finished sixth, followed by Travis Kvapil and Casey Mears. Tony Stewart led late before pitting with 12 to go, which dropped him to ninth. Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top 10.
Johnson’s 15th-place finish was more than enough to claim his third straight championship. Johnson’s final margin of victory in the points was 69 points over race winner Edwards. In a twist of fate, if the non-Chase points system were being used, Edwards’s gamble would have paid off supremely, for it would have given him the championship over Johnson by 16 points.
Greg Biffle suffered from serious handling problems early on that dropped him off of the lead lap. After fixing the handling issues on pit road and earning a free pass, Biffle made his way back up to the top 10. An extra pit stop for gas dropped him to an 18th-place finish, but that was still good enough to lock down third in points. Harvick moved up to fourth after finishing second on Sunday.
Bowyer moved up one spot to fifth after finishing a strong fifth on Sunday. He ends the season just 27 points out of fourth. Jeff Burton dropped two positions to sixth after spinning out on the backstretch on lap 178. Even though Burton did not hit anything, the car was not the same after the spin. Multiple pit stops dropped the No. 31 to a 40th-place finish, eight laps down. Gordon finishes the season in seventh place, 19 points behind Burton. This came after a run from 37th to fourth on Sunday. Denny Hamlin finishes the season in eighth place after a 13th-place finish. Granted, Hamlin ran better than 13th during the race, but the fuel mileage run at the end bit him.
Eight points behind Hamlin is Stewart in his final race for Joe Gibbs Racing. A ninth-place finish boosted him out of the Chase basement. The No. 20 led late in the going before being forced to pit for fuel. Kyle Busch will finish the season in 10th after finishing 19th, the first car one lap down (Busch was forced to pit for fuel in the last three laps of the race from second).
Two points behind Busch, and thus, two points off of the head table at the Waldorf-Astoria is Matt Kenseth, who led early and ran up front most of the race before fading late to 25th. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finishes the season 12th after breaking a wheel bearing late in the race and finishing 41st.
Outside of the Chase drivers, David Ragan finished 13th (best of the rest), 214 points in front of Kahne.
The Red Bull Racing Team’s driver switch gamble paid off of Sunday. Granted, it was not the driver lineup that they wanted to run (Mark Martin was lined up to drive the No. 84 until GM stepped in at the 11th hour), but it got the job done. While Scott Speed was piloting the No. 83 to a solid 16th-place finish, Brian Vickers ran a great race in the No. 84. That is, until he got a pass-through penalty under green for a pit-road speeding violation. From that point on, Vickers had to hold on. When Marcos Ambrose got pinched into the wall by Reed Sorenson, the No. 84 team was home free.
Even though Vickers could only manage a 32nd-place finish, that performance is good enough to guarantee the No. 84 a starting spot in the first five races of 2009 by only 13 points.
The best run by a non top-30 team on Sunday was the 11th place finish by AJ Allmendinger in the No. 10. This boosted the No. 10 up to 37th in owner points, only 80 points out of 35th. This was a team that came back from being over 325 points out of 35th at one point to actually still having an infinitesimal chance of making the Top 35 going into the last race of the season (seriously, it would have taken a miracle, but it was still possible). Allmendinger’s stock has risen significantly this season, and hopefully, he can parlay this late season run into a ride for 2009.
Allmendinger was followed to the line by the No. 21 of Bill Elliott in 12th, the best finish for the Wood Brothers on an oval for the whole season.