Hamlin wins NASCAR finale, Johnson wins title again
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season came to a close Sunday night as Denny Hamlin hoisted the winners trophy and Jimmie Johnson was crowned a the Sprint Cup Champion for the sixth time in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hamlin passed Dale Earnhardt, Jr. with 25 laps to go and pulled away to beat out championship contender Matt Kenseth by nearly a full second to score his 23rd-career Sprint Cup victory and his first since September of 2012 at Louden, ending a 43-race winless streak.
Earnhardt, Jr. finished third, followed by Martin Truex, Jr. and Clint Bowyer.
Johnson, having to finish 23rd or better to clinch the title, brought his no. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS home in ninth place, taking the championship by 19 points over Kenseth in the final race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, leaving him just one title shy of tying the mark of seven championships shared by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
“I feel like these five years were a blur, and things happened so fast. It's not that I didn't enjoy it or appreciate it or didn't respect what happened. It just went by so fast, it seems like. I'm really going to slow things down here and enjoy it. This is so, so sweet.”
For Hamlin, Sunday’s win marked one of the few bright spots in his 2013 season, which started out with high hopes after finishing as a strong championship contender the last three seasons.
But, after suffering a back injury following a crash at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana in March, Hamlin was forced to sit out the next four races, virtually wiping out any chance of making the Chase field. He finishes the season 23rd in points, his worst points finish since making just seven starts in 2005.
“Yeah, it's been a horrible year. I was going to be counting down the laps,” said Hamlin. “I knew on my first run right away that we were going to have a shot. If the strategy didn't go our way, we fell back, but when we were able to drive back up to the front, I knew (crew chief) Darian (Grubb) gave me a car capable of winning.
“As bad as the year is, we can take a little solace in this finish. Spend these next two months regrouping, getting our team back in order. I feel like there's no reason why we can't shoot out of the gates in '14 like we did in 2010 after winning here in 2009.”
At the start of the race, all eyes were on the championship battle, as Johnson, Kenseth and Kevin Harvick – still mathematically in the title hunt – started in the top ten with Kenseth starting on the pole.
Starting in seventh place in the 267-lap event, Johnson ran a steady race, running in the top ten most of night much to the chagrin of Kenseth, who could never seem to make up any ground in the point with Johnson running near the front.
Johnson’s only real scare came on a restart with 73 laps to go, when teammate Jeff Gordon spun his tires while restarting second, wading up the field behind him and causing Johnson to fall back as far as 21st in the field with minor damage to his left-front fender.
Johnson and his crew didn’t panic, pitted on the next caution flag to repair the damage, and continued to climb back through the field and back into the top 10 with 40 laps to go.
Besides the championship battle, the only other real drama of the night came on lap 232, when Paul Menard came to pit road with the right rear of his Chevrolet on fire.
As his crew came around to change tires and deal with the fire, the right rear tire exploded from the searing heat, enveloping the rear of the car in flames. Fire crews quickly doused the flames, and there were no injuries, although the no. 27 car was done for the night.
Up front, Johnson rallied back into the top ten while Kenseth powered past Earnhardt, Jr. to take second, but with Johnson running strong there was no way to make up any more ground, leaving the former 2003 champion as a championship runner-up for the second time in his career.
“It was a really fun night,” said Kenseth. “Obviously both of us sitting here wanted to come up with a win. If Jimmie would have got a flat or something that would have been okay there at the end, too.
“Jimmie (Johnson) and that team are obviously unbelievable. Never seen anything like this in the sport and probably will never see anything like it again. It's amazing with as tight as the rules are, multi-car teams, information sharing, and all that stuff. It's amazing they can figure out how to do that year after year.”
Kevin Harvick finished tenth in the race and ended the year third in the point standings for the third time in four years. Kyle Busch ended the year fourth, followed by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. finished the night in 22nd and clinched the rookie of the year honors.
HOW MUCH OF A HOLD YOUR BREATH MOMENT DID YOU HAVE WHEN YOU ENDED UP WITH THE WRINKLED FENDER WITH 74 LAPS TO GO AND SUDDENLY YOU HAD CONTACT WITH THE NO. 20 (MATT KENSETH)? "Yes, I had contact from behind that pushed me up into the 20 and both of us were out of control and sliding toward the outside fence at that point. 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 champion. I want to encourage everybody to go to Lowe's tomorrow. There is a $48 toolbox out there for you, so go pick it up.
"So many thanks to the great sponsors and people that worked on this car to make it go. I know there was an angel, at least one, but maybe four angles riding on this car. My Grandmother passed away a month or so ago, and I am without grandparents now which is a sad thing. But, I know my Grandma and my other grandparents were helping me guide this car around this car around the track. This one is for her. She was my biggest fan."
ABOUT HIS WIFE CHANDRA: "She is the strongest woman on the planet. She makes me who I am, and makes me a better man. She does a fantastic job raising these kids and keeping me in line, I am her third kid. I am so thankful to have her as wife. We are going to have a lot of fun and enjoy this moment.
"This is such a special place. There is nothing like this. We all worked so hard to get to this point; every team does. I'm so grateful to drive for Hendrick Motorsports and drive this No. 48 car, and to have the great support from Lowe's and everybody and Hendrick Motorsports. This sport is really about people. And I'm so thankful to have them all pulling in the same direction for me and giving me this awesome race car."
WHAT HAPPENED ON THE RESTART AND THE DAMAGE ON THE CAR? WHAT WAS GOING THROUGH YOUR MIND AND WHAT WAS THE CONVERSATION WITH (CREW CHIEF) CHAD (KNAUS)?
"Something happened in front of us in our lane and had everyone stacked up. 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!' We all got it straightened up but lost a lot of track position. With the damage 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-10."
WHERE DOES THIS SIXTH CHAMPIONSHIP STACK UP TO THE OTHER FIVE?
"This is extremely sweet. I feel like those five years were a blur, and things happened so fast. It's not that I didn't enjoy it or appreciate it or didn't respect what happened. It just went by so fast, it seems like. I'm really going to slow things down here and enjoy it. This is so, so sweet."
THERE WILL BE COMPARISONS COMING IN 2014 WITH YOU GOING AFTER A SEVENTH CHAMPIONSHIP THAT RICHARD PETTY AND DALE EARNHARDT HAVE.
"It's a huge honor. I have six, and we will see if I get seven. Time will tell. I think we need to save the argument until I hang up the helmet; then it's worth the argument. If people want to argue and fight about it right now then they can. But let's wait until I hang up the helmet before we start thinking about this."
RICK HENDRICK - TEAM OWNER, HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS
YOU NOW HAVE 11 NASCAR CHAMPIONSHIPS TO BREAK A TIE WITH PETTY ENTERPRISES. WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?
"I can't believe it. I always wanted to win one of these things. I never thought we would win 11. It's unbelievable. I can't really describe it. I didn't want to get excited until tonight and until it was over. It's part of history, and I'm proud of our guys. For Jimmie to have six and us to have 11, it's still hard to believe."
CHAD KNAUS, CREW CHIEF, NO. 48 LOWE’S CHEVROLET SS – 2013 Champion
“Man, what a great day. I just can’t thank everybody at Hendrick Motorsports enough. A lot of effort went into this No. 48 car this season. Everybody on the No. 48 team has dug in really deep. We had a whole lot of new players on our team this year from engineers to mechanics to pit crew members and everybody played a very important role into what it was we needed to do this year. Everybody at Lowe’s and Hendrick Motorsports; we couldn’t be prouder.”
WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION ON THE LAP 193 RESTART AND CONTACT WITH MATT KENSETH?
“I don’t really know what happened. Somebody spun their tires or there was some type of contact up ahead of us and shoot, we went from sixth to 27th pretty quickly. I knew our car was plenty good enough to drive back up there. I wish we could have raced for it. I knew we had a car that could have potentially ran up front and maybe win the race. But hey, we’ll take what we got. We got a good trophy.”
HOW WILL THIS ONE FEEL TO CELEBRATE?
“It’s going to be painful tomorrow morning I can promise you that. We’re going to have a lot of fun tonight. I actually told somebody at the shop the other day, you can’t take these for granted. You can’t take wins for granted and you can’t take championships for granted. They are so difficult. They’re so hard to achieve and you have to cherish each one of them.”
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