18 November 2013
Hamlin wins the night as Johnson sweeps the year
Coming into the 2013 season finale, all eyes were on the championship battle between Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, and that suited Denny Hamlin just fine as he pulled away to win the race.
It was the night that Jimmie Johnson went from being a five-time champion to making it a grand total of six in an astonishing eight year span, at the culmination of a tense three-hour battle with Matt Kenseth, his main remaining rival for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title, who dominated much of the race and with whom Johnson collided 74 laps from the end of the race in what would have been the most dramatic way to decide this season's victor.
Kenseth did everything that he possibly could to cut the 28 deficit that he came into the weekend trailing Johnson in the standings, claiming the bonus point for pole and for leading the most laps led (144 of the 267 laps of Homestead-Miami Speedway, 400 miles in total). But in the end it was clear that the title was nonetheless beyond him - all Johnson had to do to win the title was finish 23rd or higher, and by the final phase of the race Johnson was up into ninth place and stubbornly refusing to go away.
The deed was done as far as the Cup was concerned. In the end, while Johnson won the title and Kenseth had to settle for the runners-up spot in the the championship, neither man won the race itself. That went to Kenseth's Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Denny Hamlin, who was ironically the last man to finish second to Johnson in the Chase back in 2010.
Hamlin had started the Ford EcoBoost 400 season finale in fifth place, behind the front row consisting of Kenseth and Kurt Busch, and row 2 which saw Penske team mates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski start side-by-side. Next to Hamlin on the grid was Kevin Harvick, the only other drivers still mathematically in with a chance of stopping Johnson from clinching the title; Johnson himself was immediately behind in seventh place with Martin Truex Jr. on row four.
Kenseth led with only brief interruptions for almost all of the first half of the race, which started off with two cautions triggered by Travis Kvapil - the first on lap 11 for dropping debris after hitting the wall, and again on lap 23 for a more innocuous spin. Hamlin stayed out to lead briefly after the first, and David Ragan did likewise at the second and then first Harvick and subsequently Kurt Busch passed Ragan for the lead before Kenseth could take over once more and kept control of the proceedings through a third debris caution that saw everyone come through pit lane this time although Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. both got penalties and had to star at the back when the green flag came out again on lap 73.
Johnson was still calmly shadowing Kenseth when Dave Blaney went for a spin on lap 89 and it was a JGR lock-out at the front for the restart with Kenseth leading Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin - and Johnson still right behind them. There was no shaking the #48 today, it seemed, whereas Harvick was all but out of the running as he fell to 23rd place during the midsection of the race but recovering after the next round of pit stops which were completed under green before a debris caution on lap 152.
Johnson slipped back at the restart but any hopes Kenseth might have had that this would be the break he needed to spring a surprise in the Cup battle were quickly dispelled as Johnson started calmly working his way back through the positions once more. It was to be that sort of day, it seemed. Either Kenseth's spirits or else his car handling dipped and he made way at the front for Hamlin on lap 167 in time for a new debris caution on lap 189.
The restart proved the most dramatic moment of the entire race, when four- and five-wide jostling meant that the cars near the front had to check up - including Kenseth, who had the #48 right on his tail Johnson was caught out and had no time to break before making contact with his title rival.
"Something happened in front of us in our lane and had everyone stacked up," he explained after the race. "I got hit from behind then got into the #20. We were both out of control, and I thought, 'Man this is going to be wild. The #20 and #48 are going to wreck on the front stretch!'"
Martin Truex Jr
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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