So close. So tantalizingly close.
Denny Hamlin, the points leader, had the 2010 Sprint Cup championship in his sights. He could visualize it. Almost reach out and touch it.
Then, 35 laps into the Ford 400 season finale, Hamlin’s Toyota went broad-sliding through grass after slight contact on Homestead-Miami Speedway’s back straightaway. He didn’t hit concrete. He continued. But he never recovered, finishing 14th in the race and runner-up for the title.
In the three years since, he has languished ninth in points in 2011, sixth in 2012 and out of the 10-race Chase for the Cup in an injury-interrupted 2013 season.
So close. Right there for the taking.
Carl Edwards reached the 2011 finale a fragile three points ahead of two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart. He did everything he had to do, almost. He qualified for the pole, led the first lap, led the most laps, and finished second impressively.
But Stewart finished first. He and Edwards ended in a deadlock in points, 2,403 to 2,403. Stewart owned the tie-breaker with five victories during the season to Edwards’ one. Stewart ruled.
Edwards’ quest for stock-car racing’s most coveted trophy continues. He also finished second in points in 2008, with nine victories, and tied for second in 2005. But he failed to qualify for the 2012 Chase and ranks 13th of 13 Chase participants this year.
Even Brad Keselowski, on the heels of a breakthrough 2012 championship season, found himself outside the 2013 Chase looking in. Engine failure in the Sprint Cup “regular-season” finale Sept. 7 at Richmond, Va., finalized the failure to repeat or even contend.
All of the above demonstrate emphatically the difficulty of sustaining excellence year after year after year, or even from one year to the next, in NASCAR’s crown-jewel series.
Then there’s Jimmie Johnson.
He’s not invincible.
But he’s inevitable.
An affable and even-keeled 38-year-old Californian, Johnson will target his sixth Sprint Cup championship in eight years Sunday in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 on the 1.5-mile Homestead oval.
He needs to finish only 23rd in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet to hold the trophy aloft again, no matter how closest challenger Matt Kenseth or third-place Kevin Harvick fare in a climax shaping up as an anticlimax.
Not only would another title leave him only one shy of the record of seven, shared by stock-car racing superheroes Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt. But Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have a blueprint for supremacy that makes them automatic preseason favorites before any season.
Only Johnson has been a Chase finalist in every year since the “playoff” format was established in 2004 to sustain interest and drama once NASCAR is engaging all-powerful pro football for attention.
Memorable as well is that Johnson already could have been bidding to tie icons Petty and Earnhardt on Sunday had a wheel that came off inaugural Chase champion Kurt Busch’s Ford rolled down pit road instead of the race track.
The resulting caution period kept Busch from losing a full lap, and he rebounded to finish a gritty fifth in the race to Johnson’s second place and narrowly outpoint him for that championship.
Edwards expressed the conventional wisdom throughout the NASCAR garage area while assessing the gold standard Johnson, Knaus and owner Rick Hendrick have established in unprecedented fashion.
“People talk about championship rivalries,” Edwards said two weeks ago. “Someone put it really well the other day: The best rivalry in the past decade has been the field versus Jimmie Johnson.”
Johnson and Kenseth appeared destined to carry the 2013 title fight to closing laps at Homestead until Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota became a diabolical puzzle to him and crew chief Jason Ratcliff at Phoenix and saddled him with a 25th-place finish to Johnson’s third.
A championship would be Kenseth’s second, 10 years removed from the first. Indeed, it was his drama-free drive to the 2003 Cup title that prompted NASCAR brass to establish the Chase format in 2004. They broke out the final 10 races, revised points among top-10 qualifiers and injected a playoff intensity.
Some years have been more riveting than others. This has become one of the “others” even though Kenseth, a low-key, 41-year-old Wisconsin native, has motored through a career-high seven-victory season in his first with Joe Gibbs Racing.
That serves to show how high Johnson and Co. have raised the bar. They leave such a tiny margin for error. The lowest points finish of Johnson’s Cup career, launched with a title runner-up performance to Stewart in 2002, has been sixth.
That career-worst finish, which would have been a career-best for most, came in 2011. Johnson wryly pointed out at the track that weekend, “It hit me in the gut a little bit when they had the championship contenders’ press conference” … and he wasn’t invited.
Thus ended Johnson’s streak of five consecutive championships. In their glorious careers, neither Petty nor Earnhardt managed to string together three.
Petty, still a larger-than-life presence with his trademark cowboy hat, shades and megawatt grin, was the sport’s King. Earnhardt wore the black hat and that “Intimidator” aura throughout his brilliant career.
Johnson? His sustained excellence boggles the mind. But that, essentially, is his only trademark. He makes everything look so easy and reacts to success so undemonstratively that it’s likely his career will have to end before his greatness is truly appreciated.
Should Johnson fulfill expectations, stay out of trouble and claim that sixth championship, he’ll be fully aware of his place in history and the fact every season could elevate him. But he won’t thump his chest. He won’t gloat. He’ll celebrate but in a matter-of-fact way that indicates the best might be yet to come. That’s his understated nature.
And, again, should Johnson rule, Knaus would squirm while wrestling with the predictable and warranted question of whether Johnson could be the best ever.
“How do you answer that question?” he practically complained Tuesday, knowing there’s no way without inciting Petty and Earnhardt fans. Would an affirmative answer “mean that he could have taken a 1956 Dodge or Plymouth and beaten Richard Petty? I have no idea. Right?”
However, Knaus conceded, “I’ve worked with a lot of fantastic race-car drivers, and I’ve seen a lot of drivers come and go in our sport. I think Jimmie is, for me, and for our time, the best driver ever to sit in a race car.”