Denny Hamlin led in points, but Jimmie Johnson was close behind and then there was Kevin Harvick looking to pull off a dark horse victory. Three remaining contenders, one last race: it would prove to be quite literally a case of whoever made the least mistakes.
Kasey Kahne brought the field round to the green flag, his first pole position since his mid-season switch to the Red Bull team following his abrupt departure from Richard Petty Motorsports. But there would be no fairy tale ending to the season for Kahne, and he lost the lead after just four laps to Carl Edwards who was already looking in strong and possibly unbeatable form.
But in truth, all eyes were on the Sprint Cup contenders: Jimmie Johnson quickly moved into the top five and was soon battling AJ Allmendinger for third place which he finally achieved on lap 12, while Denny Hamlin was up nine spot into 28th after just four laps of running and Harvick was making slower but stead progress through the midfield.
David Reutimann was having less joy, hitting the wall on lap 12 but able to keep running that time only to make a return visit on lap 17 which brought out the first yellow of the afternoon and gave the drivers a chance for an early visit to pit road for some fine-tuning. Allmendinger beat Johnson out of pit road, so at the restart the three Cup rivals were 4th, 15th and 18th for Johnson, Harvick and Hamlin respectively.
But the next restart was to change the entire outlook of the Sprint Cup showdown: Hamlin made contact with the rear of the #16 of Greg Biffle on lap 23 and was sent spinning into the infield grass area. Hamlin was on the radio, howling about Biffle having moved down on him, but the replays clearly showed that it had been Hamlin who had shot up the track coming out of the corner, clipping the back of Biffle's car with his front right nose which was now looking a mess. More importantly the front splitter was affected by the impact and the run through the grass: Hamlin's pit crew immediately got to work on it, and Hamlin's pit chief Mike Ford was reassuring everyone that they had overcome worse, but the plain truth was that the car's handling had been permanently and adversely affected. Despite multiple goes at correcting the damage over ensuing pit stops, the #11 would handle loose for the rest of the day.
But there still seemed to be reason to hope for Hamlin, as he quickly made up 15 spots and improved to 22nd after the restart. Meanwhile Jimmie Johnson was up in fourth place, easily enough to overtake Hamlin's slender points advantage and claim the title. By lap 50, there were still 38 cars on the lead lap and despite posting ever-faster laps, Johnson had been bested for fourth by Martin Truex Jr., but that was fine given that Harvick was fighting with Matt Kenseth for 11th and Hamlin was making the low side work for him in his efforts to take 17th from Clint Bowyer.
Green flag pit stops were looming, but Denny Hamlin had a more pressing problem with a tyre going down that forced him in early on lap 66. Carl Edwards pitted on schedule on lap 70, which allowed Jimmie Johnson to take the lead for a lap - giving him a possibly vital 5pts for doing so - before he too came in. After the pit stops cycled through it was Martin Truex Jr.who emerged in the lead followed by Edwards, with Harvick having cracked the top ten in ninth and Denny Hamlin having made it up to 16th place; but Jimmie Johnson's pit stop had been a terrible 15s affair that had dropped him down several spots and now meant he was only just in front of Harvick. Suddenly the tension levels were cranked way up.
The next yellow came on lap 98 for debris, allowing the cars back on to pit road which meant Hamlin's crew could have another crack at that front splitter. Johnson had no better luck with his pit stop this time around and emerged in 10th spot, don three, while Harvick was now up two positions to sixth and getting a nice push from Kyle Busch into fifth place at the restart. Meanwhile Hamlin was still outside the top ten, and after running in 16th he then started to lose positions and fell back to 19th.
Truex Jr had emerged from the pit stops still in the lead but the #56 didn't seem as strong in this stint and he lost the lead to Edwards, and second to Jamie McMurray who was even strong enough to challenge Edwards for the lead as racing resumed. Edwards was able to hold him off, and by lap 112 he had opened out a 1.26s lead over the rest.
Johnson was working his way back from the disappointing pit stop and was fighting Kyle Busch over seventh position, but Kyle was obstinate as ever and refused to yield. Even so, Johnson was happy enough with the car and was conferring with his pit chief Chad Knaus over the next set of adjustments they could run on the #48.
Despite complaining that his car was too tight, Martin Truex Jr. was proving unbeatably fast and on lap 129 he retook the lead from Carl Edwards, before Marcos Ambrose went for a spin on lap 135 to bring out the fourth caution of the day and spark the next round of yellow flag pit stops. Hamlin's crew got to work on the #11's splitter once more while Johnson's crew decided against any adjustments - Knaus telling his driver to adjust his line instead - and benefited from a good stop for once putting him back up four spots in 4th place, just behind Harvick in third. The restart didn't last long before Joey Logano got pitched into a spin by Juan Montoya, which saw the #20 take on a lot of damage. Logano would be in the garage for the next 40 laps.
That brief green period had been enough for Carl Edwards to just edge out Truex Jr. for the lead. When the green came out again on lap 143; Johnson was soon overtaken by McMurray and Ryan Newman and dropped to seventh, while Harvick lost third place to Kyle Busch and Hamlin was up to 15th, a situation that would give Johnson the title by 18pts. Up front, Edwards again lost the lead to Truex after four laps and continued up front until the next yellow on lap 164 which was sparked by a spin from Kevin Conway.
Truex had a slow stop and lost three spots, so it was Edwards, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick who formed the top three at the restart, while Jimmie Johnson had another over-15s stop that dumped him out of the top ten for the restart and right alongside Denny Hamlin. The two were among a series of battles and three-wides that saw Johnson end up down in 12th and Hamlin finally in the top ten, taking ninth from Aric Almirola on lap 170: he was back in the points lead for the title at last.
Truex recovered from his poor pit stop and was back up in second behind Edwards hen the seventh yellow of that afternoon came out, for debris on the track. For once, Johnson got a decent pit stop and was out quickly, but it was Harvick who initially appeared to have had the best of it as he gained two spots and took the lead of the race. But then NASCAR decreed that he had done so by speeding in the pit lane, and he was handed a drive-thru penalty that put him to the back of the lead lap - and he even lost the points for leading the lap under yellow. Harvick was outraged, pointing out that "I don't know how you can be speeding when you're on the bumper in front of you if the other guy is not speeding," adding: "I don't think that penalty will ever settle in my stomach."
To add physical injury to the emotional one, he had even managed to clip the rear tyre-changer working on Kasey Kahne's car on the pit pox ahead as he'd exited, leaving the crew member needing to be removed by medical staff with suspected injuries to the right lower leg and ankle.
The track went green and then yellow again almost immediately as Dave Blaney hit the wall, and a still-fuming Harvick was alone in coming in for new tyres since he was at the back anyway. The track went green again on lap 198 but again it didn't last long: first Martin Truex Jr had a tyre go down sending him plummeting through the pack, and then seconds later Jeff Gordon blew an engine which finally brought out the ninth yellow of the day, during which Joey Logano - now back out on track - indulged himself in a helping of revenge by targeting the #42 car of the man who had spun him out originally, Juan Montoya.
Denny Hamlin missed the call to pit, which saw him take the restart battling for ninth with Kevin Harvick; the start-stop sequence of cautions had proved a big help for Jimmie Johnson, who was now back up battling for third place with Kyle Busch with Edwards leading Matt Kenseth. Johnson finally dispatched Busch and then got into second place thanks to an assist from Tony Stewart, but by lap 220 Edwards had a 2.58s lead and his tally of 150 laps led was enough to clinch the extra bonus points. Still, second place was just fine with Jimmie now that Harvick had been neutralised by the speeding penalty and Hamlin was continuing to suffer from handling problems thanks to that damaged splitter - it was all shaking out just fine for the reigning champion.
The pit call Hamlin missed had seemed innocuous, but it was about to prove the final nail in his championship hopes: Hamlin was in slightly early on lap 238, still under green, for his final pit stop of the day. If Hamlin had made that late top-up then he might have stretched this stint to lap 243 when there was the tenth and final caution of the afternoon while the pit stops were cycling through, resulting in Hamlin finding himself a lap down under the yellow.
The caution was for collision involving Kevin Harvick: Kyle Busch had just passed him for 14th coming out of the turn, but then misjudged how far ahead of the #29 he actually was and slid up to the outside line right in front of Harvick, who was still accelerating out of the turn. As a result, Harvick hit the rear of the #18 and sent Busch spinning toward the inside wall nose-first, causing heavy damage. While just about still under power, the car was crabbing all over the place as Kyle tried to drive it back to the pits.
But the damage was worse than even Kyle realised: although the inside of the car was filling with smoke, he was seemingly unaware that the rear and underside of the car were now engulfed in a raging fire from broken oil lines, as he continued to try and coax the car back to pit road. His crew were quickly on the radio to yell "You gotta get out of it! You gotta get out of it, man!" at him and there was rising anxiety until Kyle realised the danger, parked and then struggled to climb out in the smoke, helped by one of the NASCAR personnel from the fire truck that was quickly on scene.
The seven cars yet to pit were able to do so, but Hamlin lost the option of coming in for fresh tyres if he wanted the wave-around that would put him back on the lead lap. He opted for the latter which meant that he restarted in 18th and then dropped three spots to those on fresher rubber - it had all gone miserably wrong, and unless he got a move on he wouldn't even retain second place in the championship over Harvick.
Up front, Edwards had the lead - and Johnson was nicely tucked into second place, the two of them breaking away from Harvick in third place. Jimmie had done everything required of him, and overcome still more pit lane glitches, to put the car exactly where he needed it to be. With no further accidents or cautions before the chequered flag, the podium positions were decided - Edwards led Johnson and Harvick over the finish line.
Where was Hamlin? The title was beyond him now, but he still gave it everything he had to gain enough positions to keep hold of the runners-up position. Finally he managed to pass the #21 of Bill Elliott for 14th position with seven laps to go, and that sealed the deal - he edged out Harvick in the championship by just 2pts. It was poor compensation for the driver who had hoped to put an end to Johnson's record-breaking run of consecutive championships, but it was at least something.
And that was it. Carl Edwards had won back-to-back victories and celebrated with back-to-back back-flips, while elsewhere Johnson basked in making NASCAR history. "Pretty damn awesome, I can tell you that," he said when asked how it felt. "I've always told you guys that the first championship - first win - that stuff has meant the most to me," said Johnson. "This one, I think this takes the lead," he said, not least because of how tough the battle had been right down to the wire.
Johnson's ever-loyal pit chief Chad Knaus led the praise for the champion whom he described as "a fantastic driver who really has not got the praise that he deserves," explaining: "No disrespect to any of our elders or whatever you want to call them - the guys that raced back in the day, the Earnhardts, the Waltrips, the Pearsons, the guys like that; you hear a lot of what they say about the tenacity of those drivers and how aggressive they were and how they could do things with the race car that nobody else could do. I think if you really sat back and looked at what this guy can do with a race car, you would be pretty impressed."
The Johnson-Knaus partnership has been together since Johnson's first full Cup season in 2002 and as well as their five Cup victories they can also boast 51 race wins - results only bettered by Richard Petty's pairing with Dale Inman. In the series' 62 seasons, Johnson is the only driver to win five consecutive titles and only the third driver in its history to win five or more in their career - Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt each won seven. Johnson won his fifth championship in his ninth full-time season, while Petty's fifth came in his 16th season and Earnhardt in his 13th. In his Sprint Cup career to date, Johnson has never finished outside the top five at the end of the year.
And naturally, Johnson's not done yet but is looking at making more history come 2011: "I'm now looking at those marks that the greats have put out there and hopeful to get up there to them," he said, before sending chills down his rivals' spines with the words: "We'll enjoy five for the off season and come back and start working on six next year."
It takes a brave person to bet against Johnson to do just that. And we'll start to find out then NASCAR arrives at Daytona in the middle of February for a whole new championship.Related stories:Johnson takes 2010 Sprint Cup titleFord 400 - Race resultsFord 400 - Qualifying times