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!'"

It was Johnson himself who came out of it worse, dropping 15 places while he battled to save the car. Kenseth was barely aware there had been a problem. "I didn't even know we had contact on the restart," he said later. "It was the weirdest thing ... I got off the gas not to wreck, I got hit in the right rear, if it was Jimmie, I have no idea until you just told me. I didn't know where he was."

Fortunately Johnson saved the car and was soon back in his groove: "We all got it straightened up but lost a lot of track position," Johnson said after the race. "With the damage [to the left front] and the position loss I couldn't cut through traffic as quick as I wanted to, but we were able to get back up into the top ten."

Thereafter the race at the front pretty much belonged to Hamlin, although Harvick got ahead on pit road under the next caution which came out on lap 206, for a tyre going down on the #29 of Paul Menard. Then - in his final race as the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion - Brad Keselowski pulled a nice low slide move on Harvick to take the lead on lap 214. Eight laps later Hamlin had hunted him down and was pressing to get the lead back, but their battle just opened a window of opportunity for Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to get past them both and claim the top spot for himself.

That lasted through to the eighth and final caution of the race on lap 230, and it was for Paul Menard for the second time, the back of the car aflame as he limped the car back to pit road to where his crew waited with extinguishers. However, as he pulled up in his stall, the heat caused the right rear tyre to explode in crew members' faces. Miraculously no one was hurt, but it made a mess of the pit area and of course Menard was done for the day.

"That was pretty wild," he admitted as the still-smoking car was pushed away. "We got some right rear damage and had a flat tyre [on lap 206]. I guess a bunch of rubber got wrapped up underneath around the axle I guess. Came in a couple of times trying to fix the damage and try to get the rubber off. We didn't get it all and I guess it just caught fire.

"I didn't really know it until there was a little bit of spark coming in the car and landed on the window net, thought that was kind of weird. About a lap later they said I was on fire; I lost my brakes, then the damn wheel blew right off!

"I just tried to get out of the car as fast as I could," he added. "When it blew, I was worried about all my guys on the right-rear corner. We've seen tyres blow before and they are pretty damn violent. I'm just glad everyone is okay.

Earnhardt briefly got ahead again at the restart on lap 240, but Hamlin soon took care of that and with no further interruptions or changes at the front for the final 24 laps, Hamlin managed to record his first win of the year, meaning that he just managed to keep alive a streak of wins in every season since 2006., eight in total. It was a much-appreciated consolation prize for Hamlin, whose hopes of even making the Chase this year were dashed as far back as Easter when a heavy crash at Fontana left Hamlin with a back injury meant that the 32-year-old had to sit out month's worth of races at the worst possible time, leaving him impossibly adrift in the points for the rest of the season.

Perhaps this little bit of teams spirit explains why Kenseth - all too aware of the fact that Johnson was back up into ninth and now a lock for the title - didn't challenge Kenseth for the lead in the final laps and why Hamlin duly crossed the line eight tenths ahead of Kenseth who made it a JGR one-two by staying a further half a second ahead of Earnhardt at the line.

Martin Truex Jr. signed off at Michael Waltrip Racing with fourth place, just ahead of his current team mate Clint Bowyer in fifth. Truex moves to Furniture Row Racing next season, after MWR was forced to downsize to a two-car line-up in 2014 following the loss of key sponsors NAPA after the Richmond 'race rigging' scandal in September. Brad Keselowski signed off his championship with sixth place ahead of third JGR driver Kyle Busch, with Joey Logano finished just ahead of Johnson and Harvick ending the season one place further back in tenth.

Having started the race in the late afternoon, three hours later the skies were dark and the fireworks correspondingly vivid as two parties started on the front stretch: one for race winner Denny Hamlin, but of course the bigger one for Jimmie Johnson celebrating his sixth title, putting him - at the age of just 38 - just one away from matching the all-time wins record of seven shared by NASCAR icons Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Six-pack this year, maybe seven-up in 2014 - and then who knows how long it will take Johnson will clinch sporting history with a magic eighth?

See also: Johnson celebrates sixth Sprint Cup championshipInterview with the new Sprint Cup champion Jimmie JohnsonInterview with Ford EcoBoost 400 race winner Denny HamlinFull race results and final Sprint Cup Championship standings of 2013 also available.



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