What started in Daytona under a thick black cloud thanks to the Michael Waltrip cheating scandal now heads back to the sunshine state for the final green flag of the season at Homestead- Miami.
It will be the Ford Championship weekend at Homestead, but with both the Craftsman Truck Series and Busch Series already crowning their champion, all that is left is for Jimmie Johnson to hold on to his 86-point lead over teammate Jeff Gordon to claim the Cup title.
It is hard to believe that just nine races ago there were 12 drivers set to battle for this year’s title, but thanks to an unbelievable four-race win streak, Johnson has made the highly anticipated Chase nothing more than a showcase for Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon. Gordon is the only driver still with a mathematical chance of taking the title, but all Johnson has to do this weekend – regardless of where Gordon finishes – is cross the finish line 18th or better to become the first driver since Gordon in 1997 and ’98 to win back-to-back titles.
It is hard to believe this kind of ending to the season is what the powers-that-be at NASCAR envisioned when they dreamed up the Chase. They knew they had to do something after 2003 when Matt Kenseth dominated the sport over the final third of the season to the point he made the final month of the season nothing more a giant victory parade.
Kenseth’s domination (he and his team earned it) hurt the sport as it took the thunder out of a title run. Even though Johnson and Gordon are still battling at this season’s final stop on the schedule, there are too many similarities between the two drivers to stir up much interest in how the season ends. I’m not knocking either Johnson or Gordon, because one thing for sure – both of these drivers and their teams did what it took to get to this point of the season with a chance to win the championship. But when you look at either team, it is just like looking at a carbon copy of the other. The similarities are so great that unless you are a fan of either driver, there just isn’t much to get excited about in this weekend’s title crowning.
Since both teams race under the Hendrick Motorsports banner, both teams field Chevrolets. Nothing against Hendrick or Chevrolet, but unless you are a Hendrick supporter and a cardcarrying member of the bowtie brigade, you probably could care less which driver finally holds the championship trophy over his head after the last laps go into the books on Sunday.
You’ve got to admit that going into Sunday with a Ford vs. Chevy or maybe a Dodge vs. Toyota for the championship sure would add some excitement to the race. If that was the case, that would mean teammates wouldn’t be racing for the same trophy. That’s not going to happen because Rick Hendrick and his organization are the best in the business at this time and have proved over the years that regard less of the format for determining the champion or the rules that you have to race by, this is the one organization that is able to adapt and continue its winning ways.
This championship may signal the official passing of the torch, not only at Hendrick Motorsports but also for all of NASCAR, if Johnson hangs on to win his second title. No longer will Johnson be looked at as the other driver when compared to Gordon at Hendrick’s and in the sport as a whole. Sure Gordon has his four titles, but like any other professional sport, racing is all about “what have you done lately.” This is not to say that Gordon will never get his fifth, sixth or maybe even his record-tying seventh title, but the dominating days that Gordon once enjoyed seem to be coming to an end.
Even though the sport continues to change with each passing season, the one thing that never changes is that a driver’s time at the top of the sport is limited. Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Sr. all had their run. Maybe now it’s Gordon’s time to go ahead and pass the torch to his teammate.
Race Preview – Event: Ford 400. Track: Homestead- Miami Speedway (1.5-mile oval, 20 degrees of variable banking in the turns). Date: Nov. 18, 3 p.m. TV: NBC. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Greg Biffle.