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We have a points race — maybe

10 November 2009

Jimmie Johnson's fiasco in Fort Worth — a wreck on lap three of Sunday's Dickies 500 — all but ensured that NASCAR will have its Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway after all, at least in one of the top three series.

Before the crash in which Sam Hornish Jr.'s Dodge knocked Johnson's Chevy out of control and into the wall as the cars sped through turn two, the Nov. 22 season finale at Homestead was looking more like the culmination of Coronation Weekend, with all three championships likely to be decided a week earlier at Phoenix.

Johnson entered Sunday's race with a 184-point lead over team-mate Mark Martin, needing an average finish of tenth in the final three races to lock up his record fourth straight title. Those numbers changed dramatically when Johnson nursed his crippled car to a 38th-place result at Texas Motor Speedway.

To lock up the title at Phoenix, Johnson must gain 123 points on Martin and 83 on third-place Jeff Gordon, an unlikely circumstance. Though the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series championships likely will be clinched before NASCAR racing returns to Florida, what happens at Phoenix this weekend will determine what Johnson needs to do at Homestead to wrap up the championship.

Johnson can still shut out his closest pursuers by averaging a fourth-place finish in the final two races, even if he fails to lead a lap.

Even though Johnson lost the better part of his pre-Texas advantage, his shrunken points lead (73 over Martin and 112 over Gordon) may be more a case of postponing the inevitable than of turning the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup into a down-to-the-wire competition.

After sitting in his car for more than an hour while his team repaired it, returning to the track on Lap 115 and slogging around the 1.5-mile track a full second or so off the pace, Johnson was remarkably composed — other than taking a couple of potshots at Hornish.

“We did not want to lose points like that,” he said in what had to qualify as the understatement of the evening. “Luckily we had a big margin. We're going to two great tracks for us here, and we'll just keep racing. We've been saying all along that anything can happen. I just wish Sam could have waited a little while longer before he hit something. Instead, he lost it and hit me and off we went.

“I'm definitely disappointed. I felt like we had a chance to win the race. I felt like at least we could stretch the margin or keep it like it was. But it wasn't meant to be. We still have a nice lead, and we'll take it from here.”

You couldn't blame Johnson for wishing NASCAR had moved Texas out of the Chase instead of Atlanta when Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.) was gerrymandered into the final ten races. Last year, Johnson lost 77 points of a 183-point lead over Carl Edwards when he ran 15th at Texas, one lap down, and Edwards won the race.

In the end, it didn't matter — and Sunday's 38th-place finish probably won't, either. In his previous six starts at Phoenix, Johnson has three wins a second and two fourths. Though he has never won at Homestead, he has always done more than enough there to protect his championship lead.

So don't look at the wreck at Texas as a sea change in Johnson's fortunes. What happened there was more fluke than crisis. Nevertheless, it did what a legion of fans had been asking for — in putting some interest back into the title race.

After all, the illusion of suspense is better than no suspense at all.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News


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