The end results were predictable. Carl Edwards won the Ford 400 at Homestead, securing the sixth win in the last seven races in the season finale race for Roush Fenway Racing. And Jimmie Johnson realized the “Drive for Five,” winning his fifth consecutive Cup Series championship.
How both got there, however, was anything but.
Though Kasey Kahne started from the pole at the drop of the green flag, it wasn’t but lap 5 when Edwards took the point for the first of a race-high 190 circuits he would lead. Though the caution flag flew early on lap 19 when David Reutimann cut a tire after tagging the turn 2 wall and making contact with Kurt Busch a few laps before, the first Chase drama of the afternoon unfolded on lap 24. Denny Hamlin, charging to the front of the pack after starting the race mired in 37th, pushed up the track exiting turn 2 and into Greg Biffle. The resulting tangle sent Hamlin spinning into the backstretch grass, damaging the right-front fender and splitter on the No. 11 Toyota. Further, as Hamlin revealed later in post-race remarks, the spin knocked the tow out of his Camry and robbed it of the speed the team was convinced it had.
“We just tried to patch it and work on it the best we could, but it just wasn’t the car that it was at the beginning” said Hamlin of a day that quickly went sour for the incoming points leader. Though Hamlin’s team cracked the top 10 on lap 169 and got as far as sixth after taking major swings at their car and making brace repairs to their damaged splitter, it was a lap 187 pit stop that ended that charge forward as the No. 11 lost three spots on pit road. At the same time, Johnson’s No. 48 car roared to life. Starting alongside Hamlin on the ensuing restart, Johnson surged forward while Hamlin lagged behind.
The deal was sealed after the caution flew on lap 202 after Jeff Gordon‘s engine expired, the first motor DNF for any Hendrick Motorsports team in 2010. On the ensuing cycle of pit stops, Hamlin missed a last-second call by crew chief Mike Ford to come down pit road for tires and adjustments. It proved to be a fateful moment; by lap 224 Hamlin had fallen out of the top 10, never to return. The car’s handling was so poor that Hamlin was forced to short-pit on lap 238, a stop that left him a lap down. Meanwhile, Johnson had surged to second before making his final stop one lap later, and was comfortably in the top 10 when the final yellow flag of the season flew on lap 243. Kevin Harvick, who later told reporters he was tired of Kyle Busch “racing him like a clown all day,” dumped the No. 18 Toyota exiting turn 4 and sent him hard into the frontstretch retaining wall.
With Hamlin a lap down and Johnson in the top five, Harvick’s third place run proved to be a moot point in terms of the title chase, as Johnson clinched the 2010 Sprint Cup with a second-place result, finishing 39 points ahead of Hamlin, who eventually finished 14th.
As for Harvick, the third driver in Sunday’s title fight, Harvick’s title chances came to a controversial end on the same lap 187 pit cycle that saw Hamlin’s fall start to take shape. For as all the attention was focused on Hamlin and Johnson during that caution, it was Harvick’s pit crew that got the No. 29 car out first, ahead of the entire field. Problem was, NASCAR busted Harvick for speeding on entry to pit road, stripping him of his five bonus points for leading that lap off pit road and sending him to the back of the pack for the restart. The penalty triggered a chorus of boos from a sparse crowd that was not the 67,000 reported by NASCAR statistics, and left Harvick and team vocally displeased but utterly powerless to do anything about it.
Race winner Edwards was the class of the field throughout Sunday’s event, but he faced an unlikely challenger for much of the event in Martin Truex Jr. Truex, who started 25th, cracked the top five by lap 40 and took the lead for the first time on lap 73 (Truex would lead six times for 62 circuits on the afternoon). Running second when the caution flag flew on lap 196 after Dave Blaney pounded the wall, Truex dropped like a rock on the ensuing restart with a flat tire of his own, falling back to 31st after making a stop under green. Though the No. 56 made a valiant comeback, Truex was unable to make it back to the top 10 by checkered flag, finishing 11th with a car that was capable of far better.
Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger finished fourth and fifth in stellar days for Richard Petty Motorsports’ two flagship rides as the team faces an uncertain 2011. Andy Lally finished 29th driving TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 car, locking that team into the 35th and final position in owner points headed into the 2011 Daytona 500. Kevin Conway spun on lap 164, but avoided contact with the wall and finished 30th, securing the 2010 Rookie of the Year award. Polesitter Kahne led a total of ten laps on the day and finished sixth, his first top-10 finish with Red Bull Racing.
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