NASCAR – Ford 400 – Homestead-Miami Speedway – Sun Nov 16

And so we come to the end of the chase, and of NASCAR for 2008. And while the Spring Cup was still technically up for grabs between Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson, realistically it was only ever going to go one way.

With everything looking fairly set, but nothing actually locked, it made for a tense and nervy final race – but not a particularly exciting one, with everyone keeping their eyes on the prize and not risking things unduly. So during a surprisingly incident free first 140 laps (the only yellow was for a lazy solo spin by Aric Almirola off turn 4 on lap 70), Carl Edwards worked his way into the lead by lap 18 from his grudging team mate Matt Kenseth, and then stayed in the top spot. He was doing all he could do – going for the win and the points for the most laps led.

Meanwhile, all Jimmie Johnson had to do was finish higher than 36th. He started down in 30th – a little uncomfortable far down the field, all things considered, especially if a midfield wreck were to wipe him out. So he gradually – but inexorably – worked his way up through the field as the laps clicked by. By lap 130, with the sun setting on Homestead, he was up into 9th place and things were going according to plan.

By the midpoint of the race we had Edwards still leading, followed by David Ragan, Tony Stewart, David Reutimann, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch. Of the Chase contenders, only one – Greg Biffle – was outside the top 16, a lap down after getting a pit lane speeding penalty on lap 54 under green flag conditions; he didn’t get back on the lead lap until getting the free pass on lap 169.

The second yellow came out on lap 140 for debris. Even though it was only ten laps after their previous stops, most cars pitted again to allow for further changes to adapt to the cooling conditions as the sun set and to sort out handling problems: it proved costly for Earnhardt, who was thrown by only having a two-tyre stop when he was expecting four and struggled to get drive out of his pit box, dropping to 21st and the final car on the lead lap as a result.

Kurt Busch – who had been a lap down and well off the pace all afternoon – brought out the third yellow just five laps after the restart, when a flat tyre seemingly caused by a pit lane clash with brian Vickers put him into the wall. While under the yellow, Carl Edwards officially clinched the 10 bonus points for leading the most laps: but with Jimmie Johnson still in the top ten, it made no difference to the Sprint Cup outcome.

Things were starting to get interesting as we entered the final hundred laps, with a spat between Reed Sorenson and Paul Menard, then a hard-fought battle between David Reutimann and Juan Montoya for 10th which saw Montoya hit Reutimann’s rear quarterpanel before pulling to the high side to complete the overtake. But it was a clash between Sorenson and Marcos Ambros on lap 168 that brought out the fourth yellow, Ambros’ right front being tipped into the wall and doing extensive damage to the number 47 who had to go to the garage for repairs and ended up 43 laps behind.

In the ensuing pit stops, Reutimann, Kenseth, Bowyer and Gilliland all opted for two tyres while Edwards led those who took the time to change four tyres. Jeff Gordon opted not to pit at all, a bold move putting him into the lead for the restart. More importantly, however, Jimmie Johnson was still ambling around in 14th – quite good enough for the championship, but his caution was making him a sitting duck for other drivers with less at stake not afraid to put him in the middle of a three-wide hair-raiser, pushing him down to 19th place during the brief green flag stint, although that was a temporary blip for him.

Jeff Burton got clipped by backmarker Joe Nemechek suddenly moving down on him coming out of turn 3 on lap 178, sending him spinning across the infield grass area and resulting in another caution; and Reed Sorenson drifted up the track and into the wall on lap 198 to bring out the sixth caution.

Matt Kenseth had taken the lead on lap 185, as Jeff Gordon started to struggle for not taking on new rubber at the last round of pit stops, but his gamble had worked as the latest caution brought everyone in and Gordon could come in and get back in sync with the others. And this time it was the 48 car that opted to gamble on taking two tyres only – and that meant Jimmie Johnson emerged from the pit lane in the lead of the race having come in from 13th. A little risky and aggressive for someone who only needed to finish in the top 36? Perhaps, but it’s the spirit that wins championship – it also netted him 5pts for leading a lap, and also took him out of that dangerously crowded midfield sector that could have ended in a wreck and heartbreak – still vital, as all cars were still running and a crash now would put him 43rd.

So with 65 laps to go, Johnson led Kenseth, Edwards, Hamlin, Harvick, Stewart, Busch, Gordon, Bowyer and Scott Riggs in the top ten. Kenseth managed to pass Johnson, and Hamlin managed to pass Edwards whose car was now looking uncomfortably loose at this stage of the evening. The question on everyone’s lips: was Edwards once again playing the fuel card? While everyone was expecting one more pit stop before the end, longer memories recalled how Edwards had stretched a tank of fuel for 69 laps at Texas which was also a 1.5 mile lap. Certainly Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon, who pitted under the seventh yellow brought out by Kurt Busch’s second encounter with the wall of the day, now felt they could make it to the end.

With cars going into fuel conservation mode, suddenly it was the Tony Stewart in his final outing in the number 20 – before switching to his own team in 2009 – who blasted his way to the front with 23 laps to go. But he had to make another stop, which he did with 11 to go, handing the lead back to Matt Kenseth with Carl Edwards in second. But there were no yellows, so this was going to be very, very close.

In the final laps, Dale Earnhardt Jr retired and Jimmie Johnson fell back to 20th after his inevitable final pit stop. Still not nearly far back enough to give the title to Edwards of course, who was having his own battle to make the fuel stretch while simultaneously battle with Kenseth for the lead. But the latter part of the equation fell away on lap 264 when Kenseth ran out of fuel and had to coast off the track.

Heading into the final lap, Edwards was crawling – at times it was impossible to be sure he hadn’t run out of fuel too. But he had timed it to perfection and crawled over the finish line with over seven seconds between him and Harvick who claimed second ahead of McMurray, Gordon and Bowyer. Jimmie Johnson meanwhile was back in 15th – one of his worst finishes in the Sprint, but more than enough to secure the title.

Edwards took the race win, but Johnson had claimed the far more valuable Sprint Cup and a record-equalling third consecutive title – only Cale Yarborough had achieved that in the series before today. And no one could say Jimmie (and his pit chief Chad Knaus) didn’t deserve his place in the history books.

Fin St  Car Driver              Make        Pts/Bns Laps
1   4   99  Carl Edwards        Ford        195/10  267 Running
2   5   29  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   175/5   267 Running
3   7   26  Jamie McMurray      Ford        165/0   267 Running
4   37  24  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   165/5   267 Running
5   27  07  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   155/0   267 Running
6   18  9   Kasey Kahne         Dodge       150/0   267 Running
7   19  28  Travis Kvapil       Ford        146/0   267 Running
8   12  5   Casey Mears         Chevrolet   142/0   267 Running
9   10  1   Martin Truex Jr.    Chevrolet   138/0   267 Running
10  13  20  Tony Stewart        Toyota      139/5   267 Running
11  43  10  A.J. Allmendinger   Dodge       130/0   267 Running
12  8   18  Kyle Busch  Toyota  M&M's       127/0   267 In Pit
13  15  21  Bill Elliott        Ford        124/0   267 Running
14  25  11  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      121/0   267 Running
15  39  66  Scott Riggs         Chevrolet   118/0   267 Running
16  30  48  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   120/5   267 Running
17  2   83  Scott Speed         Toyota      112/0   267 Running
18  11  42  Juan Montoya        Dodge       114/5   267 Running
19  23  16  Greg Biffle         Ford        106/0   267 Running
20  6   6   David Ragan         Ford        103/0   265 In Pit
21  3   17  Matt Kenseth        Ford        105/5   265 Running
22  29  12  Ryan Newman         Dodge        97/0   265 Running
23  1   44  David Reutimann     Toyota       99/5   265 Running
24  33  22  Dave Blaney         Toyota       91/0   265 Running
25  31  25  Brad Keselowski     Chevrolet    88/0   265 Running
26  34  38  David Gilliland     Ford         85/0   265 Running
27  14  7   Robby Gordon        Dodge        82/0   265 Running
28  24  19  Elliott Sadler      Dodge        79/0   265 Running
29  21  109 Sterling Marlin     Chevrolet    76/0   265 Running
30  36  15  Paul Menard         Chevrolet    73/0   265 Running
31  9   41  Reed Sorenson       Dodge        70/0   265 Running
32  20  84  Brian Vickers       Toyota       67/0   264 Running
33  35  43  Bobby Labonte       Dodge        64/0   264 Running
34  26  01  Regan Smith *       Chevrolet    61/0   264 Running
35  40  8   Aric Almirola       Chevrolet    58/0   264 Running
36  16  78  Joe Nemechek        Chevrolet    55/0   263 Running
37  32  70  Tony Raines         Chevrolet    52/0   263 Running
38  42  55  Michael Waltrip     Toyota       49/0   263 Running
39  28  45  Chad McCumbee       Dodge        46/0   262 Running
40  17  31  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet    43/0   258 Running
41  22  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet    40/0   246 In Pit
42  41  347 Marcos Ambrose      Toyota       37/0   221 Running
43  38  2   Kurt Busch          Dodge        34/0   207 In Pit

Further back, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr – with their late retirements – drop out of the top ten and miss out on the trip to New York for the formal presentation of ASCAR’s top drivers for 2008:

Pos +/- Car Driver              Make        Pts     Gap     Pos Led
1   --  #48 Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   6681    --      16    6
2   --  #99 Carl Edwards        Ford        6615    -66      1  157
3   --  #16 Greg Biffle         Ford        6464    -217    19    0
4   +1  #29 Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   6408    -273     2    1
5   +1  #07 Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   6381    -300     5    0
6   -2  #31 Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   6335    -346    40    0
7   --  #24 Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   6316    -365     4   16
8   +1  #11 Denny Hamlin        Toyota      6211    -470    14    0
9   +2  #18 Kyle Busch          Toyota      6207    -474    12    0
10  +2  #20 Tony Stewart        Toyota      6198    -483    10   11
11  -3  #17 Matt Kenseth        Ford        6196    -485    21   73
12  -2  #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet   6127    -554    41    0
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