Denny Hamlin won the battle, while Jimmie Johnson won the war in the Ford EcoBoost 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season finale at Homestead-Miami on Sunday. Denny Hamlin claimed his first race win in what was a tumultuous season, while Jimmie Johnson claimed his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship.
“I don’t even know where to start,” Johnson said. “I am at a loss for words, but I am so proud, and so thankful for this opportunity at Hendrick Motorsports. I’m thankful that Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick gave me this opportunity back in 2002. Thankful that Lowe’s came on board.”
Matt Kenseth finished the race in the second position and led the most laps, running up front for 144 laps in the 267-lap race, but that wasn’t enough to overcome the 28-point deficit to Johnson with which he entered Sunday’s race. Kenseth, instead, wound up the season in second, 19 points behind champion Johnson.
“We had a good night,” Kenseth said. “We were really dominant when the sun was out. We struggled a little bit at night.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. battled Kenseth for second in the closing laps, but in the end was relegated to a third-place finish. Martin Truex Jr. finished fourth and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top-five.
“It’s a little bit disappointing,” Earnhardt said of his finish. “We had such a good car and couldn’t capitalize. It was just real hard to get by those guys at the end. They were protecting their position and Matt was working hard to get points. We beat and banged a little bit; it was fun racing.”
Kenseth started on the pole, with fellow-championship contenders Kevin Harvick and Johnson starting sixth and seventh. Early on, all three drivers ran at or near the front, but a call to take only two tires during the first caution of the race didn’t work out for Harvick, as he dropped back through the field after the race returned to green near lap 30. Harvick eventually dropped off the lead lap after making a green-flag pit stop on lap 117. He got back on the lead lap later in the race.
“We just weren’t very good,” Harvick said. “Just couldn’t turn like we needed to. We had one set of tires that I don’t know what was wrong with, but just like always these guys on our Budweiser Chevy kept after it. We were able to salvage something out of the night.”
Meanwhile, Kenseth and Johnson continued to run up front and were joined by their teammates, with Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Hamlin and Kyle Busch and Hendrick Motorsports drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon also running at or near the top-five for most of the remainder of the race.
Kenseth looked to possibly get the break he needed on a late race restart with just over 70 laps remaining in the form of damage to Johnson’s No. 48 when the field bunched up behind Gordon, who spun his tires on the restart.
“I had contact from behind that pushed me up into the 20 (Kenseth) and both of us were out of control and sliding toward the outside fence at that point,” Johnson said. “So, I didn’t know what to think. They got us mired back in traffic and made the last 50 laps kind of interesting. We still had an awesome race car and got the job done. I’m just so happy to win this sixth championship.”
The damage resulted in a cut tire for Johnson a few laps later, sending him outside the top-20 of the running order. He was gradually able to work his way back into the top-10 by the finish. Harvick also got back into the top-10 by the end to finish 10th.
Other top-10 finishers included Brad Keselowski in sixth, Busch in seventh, and Joey Logano in eighth.
“We definitely had the car on the short runs, but just weren’t close on the long runs,” Keselowski said. “I guess that was kind of the trade off. We had a lot long runs here at Homestead, which is normally the case. If we could have got the long run speed to go with the short run speed we would have killed them tonight, but we just didn’t have that.”
After a 22nd-place finish, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was named the Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year.
The race included 22 lead changes among eight different drivers. There were also eight cautions for 37 laps, with the final caution of the race coming out on lap 232 when Paul Menard’s No. 27 caught fire.
“Something happened on the restart where everybody checked up,” Menard said, explaining that tire built up around his wheel, as a result, and that rubber caught fire.
– Photos courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR