After the meteoric rise and fall of one of Sprint Cup's burgeoning superstars, Kyle Busch, the 2008 season ended the way the previous two had - with a Jimmie Johnson championship.

This one was special. Johnson's dominating performance in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup enabled the driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet to join an exclusive club that previously had only one member: Cale Yarborough. Johnson became the second driver to win three straight Cup championships, and he did so without a major mistake in the final ten races.

With a comfortable 15th-place finish in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway - a stark contrast to a very uncomfortable 15th-place finish at Texas two weeks earlier - Johnson won the title by 69 points over Carl Edwards, who won three of the final four races but couldn't over come a critical mistake at Talladega and the bizarre simultaneous failure of both ignition boxes in his #99 Ford at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Edwards and Busch, however, were the two drivers who started the season as if they were the two who were going to battle for the championship. Busch won eight of the first 26 races, beginning with Atlanta in March and ending with his second road-course victory of the season, at Watkins Glen.

That final win was a highlight of a remarkable season that saw Busch win a record-tying ten times in the Nationwide Series and three ties in the Craftsman Truck Series, but it was also the end of the road for Busch in the Cup Series. Entering the Chase as the top seed, Busch suffered mechanical problems at New Hampshire, Dover and Kansas and fell precipitously from title contention.

Edwards won early, too, with victories in the second and third races of the season, at Auto Club Speedway and Las Vegas. An oil tank cover violation at Las Vegas, however, cost Edwards the ten Chase bonus points he would have earned for the win, in addition to a 100-point penalty. By the end of the year, he would surpass Busch for most victories in the series - nine.

In the first year in which NASCAR's new racecar was used exclusively in the Cup series, Johnson struggled at the beginning of the season. After five races, he was 13th in the championship standings, without a win. Though he picked up his first victory of the season in April at Phoenix, Johnson felt his team found real speed for the first time at Michigan in June, when he led a race-high 65 laps and finished sixth.

Despite his early travails, however, Johnson wasn't worried about qualifying for the Chase.

"I don't think we felt like we wouldn't have a shot at the championship," he explained. "But we knew we needed to get things together. It just took a team effort of testing, of R & D from the engine shop, from chassis, body - all the departments. Just everybody had to buckle down and find out where the speed was. Just keep it simple. We had to really find out where to work and what to work on.

"It takes a while. When you're off base, it takes a while to one, recognize when you're off base, two, find out what the problem is, and three, start working in new areas to find speed. It just took us a little time. We got things turned around and got into a comfortable position to transfer into the Chase.

"As the season went on, we just kept getting stronger and stronger and understanding the car better and better - from my standpoint of driving it to setting it up."

The fourth race in the Chase, at Talladega, was the start of Edwards' undoing. Up to that point, Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle (who picked up his only two wins of the year in the first two races of the Chase) and Johnson were contesting the championship on equal terms.

Bump-drafting through the third turn late in the Talladega race, Edwards spun Biffle and triggered a multicar wreck that damaged his chances as well as that of this teammate.

The ignition box failures the following week at Charlotte put Edwards so far behind that even his frenzied charge at the end of the season wasn't enough to catch Johnson, who cemented his title with a victory from the pole in the penultimate race at Phoenix.

It was a season of strength for Cup's strongest teams. Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing filled the Chase field with three drivers each. Though Ryan Newman won the 50th running of the Daytona 500 in February, only two other drivers who subsequently failed to qualify for the Chase would win races in 2008 - Kasey Kahne at Lowe's and Pocono and Kurt Busch in a rain-shortened event at New Hampshire.

The Chase played out against the backdrop of a severe economic downturn in which the auto industry has become one of the biggest question marks. Layoffs, in lieu of celebration, followed the close of the season at Homestead, as teams trimmed personnel, many hired for the 2007 season, when Cup teams had to compete simultaneously with old car/new car platforms.

As far as the championship went, however, there was no question.

"We got beat by a great champion," Edwards said after the final race.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News



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