Was anyone really surprised at what transpired in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday?
From the moment Denny Hamlin's dominance in the previous week's race at Phoenix went up in a puff of miscalculated fuel-mileage smoke, costing him the victory that might have clinched the Chase for himself, this was more Jimmie Johnson's title to lose than it was Hamlin's -- even though Johnson had a worried Hamlin thinking exactly the opposite reaction you saw it in Hamlin's eyes and heard it in his voice at Phoenix. The mind games put into play by Hamlin's crew chief, Mike Ford, following a victory at Texas with two races left in the Chase already had begun to backfire -- and Jimmie the Mentalist was ready to play his new role as antagonist to the hilt.
"I think in Phoenix, or actually backing up to Texas, the gloves came off amongst the teams," Johnson said. "It's not usually my deal to play games. But it's not out of my line of thought to tell the truth in what I think is going on, and that's all that I did. If it worked and played mind games on them, right on."
It was like a grand master adding a new move to his already formidable chess game, one even he didn't know he had.
So Johnson came into Sunday's Ford 400 trailing Hamlin by 15 points in the Chase standings. So what? Johnson really was the favorite all along.
Johnson kept telling Hamlin that it really was Hamlin who had everything to lose. He wondered out loud how Denny was sleeping at night. He jumped inside Hamlin's head and stayed there until another Cup Series trophy was safely tucked away under his arm.
The 2010 Chase was going to go to whichever team committed the fewest mistakes, and you just knew it was going to be Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the No. 48, er 24/48 gang. In the end, Johnson as the driver was flawless -- allowing the team to overcome a couple of poor pit stops early.
And Hamlin? It actually was more surprising that he was able to come back from a spin on Lap 23 to at least make it interesting for a while than it was that he spun in the first place.
A great season
This isn't to say that Hamlin and his No. 11 Toyota team did not have a fine season. They won a season-high eight races. They nearly ended the great Johnson's championship run, which now stands at five in a row and has everyone wondering more when, and not if, he'll equal or surpass the record-setting total of seven each earned by Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
The same goes for the No. 29 Chevy team from Richard Childress Racing led by driver Kevin Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin. Their undoing Sunday came when Harvick got caught speeding entering pit road -- earning him a penalty he vehemently denied he deserved.
The truth is, it wouldn't have mattered in the big picture. Even if Harvick had been able to win Sunday's race, there was no way Johnson was going to finish far enough back for Harvick to be able to pass him in the Chase standings.
"We had a good year, but the guy who wins the championship has a great year," Richard Childress said. "I'm proud of our guys and what they accomplished. We gave it a shot."
They did and along with Hamlin, they took the sport on a ride that was most entertaining all year long. The races, for the most part, were outstanding. And the Chase, for once, was not all sealed up long before Homestead by the irrepressible Johnson.
No one knew it more than him, which is why he began needling Hamlin mercilessly from the minute they both arrived in South Florida to begin promoting the season finale as some sort three-way heavyweight championship bout.
It appeared to have the desired effect, although no one except Hamlin will ever know for sure -- and he's not likely to admit it.
"At some point, I'm sure he was cussing me," Johnson said. "I'm not sure if it was in the car or the night before when he went to bed."
Wait 'til next year
So 2010 is a wrap. By Childress' own calculations, that's five great years in a row by Johnson.
There are those who will argue that Johnson's unprecedented five-year run is not good for the sport. Harvick repeatedly had said it was past time for someone else to win a championship leading up to Sunday's showdown. It was an apparent -- and obviously futile -- attempt to get inside Johnson's head the way Johnson got inside Hamlin's.
Some day, and hopefully soon, those same folks will learn to appreciate Johnson's string of championship for what it really is: a phenomenal athletic accomplishment on par with some of the most storied feats in the history of all sports.
This season was different, though, in that there were longer stretches when Johnson and his team seemed beatable. It gave teams like Hamlin's and Harvick's hope, albeit only temporarily.
It gives guys like Carl Edwards, who won Sunday's race and the last two Cup races overall, hope that maybe next year will be different. Johnson winning a sixth in a row is a definite possibility, but definitely not a foregone conclusion.
"Congratulations to Jimmie Johnson. Five championships in a row, that's unreal," Edwards said. "I think the way we're going here, if we can start like this next season, we could have a good shot at them."
It's all anyone can ask for at this point. And it's enough to make next season well worth watching.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.