Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.
The final races of the 2010 played out unlike any other in recent memory, but in the end, the result was the same: Jimmie Johnson, champion once again.
Of the five he's won, none came harder, none required more fight and dedication from Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus, and the entire, expanded 48 team. Johnson and his crew had opportunity after opportunity to spit the bit and give away the race, but every time, Johnson held off his pursuers and overcame obstacles, even those created by his own squad.
You may not like that Johnson won again, but you can't deny he earned it.
As the day began, Denny Hamlin clung to a narrow 15-point lead, while Kevin Harvick sat 46 points back. And right from the green flag, both faced mountains to climb. Poor qualifying runs left Harvick and Hamlin starting well back in the pack, while Johnson took the start in 6th position.
And while Hamlin and Harvick both surged to the front, it was Hamlin who suffered the early gut-shot, spinning into the grass and damaging his splitter 50 laps into the race. Crew chief Mike Ford navigated a masterful in-race rebuild of the car that had Hamlin charging up into the top 10, but bad luck and bad timing kept pushing the 11 car back into the field.
Harvick, meanwhile, appeared to have the most consistent car of the day, as he has all season long. But his wounds were self-inflicted; a speeding penalty coming down pit road cost him a spot in the lead. Harvick protested the penalty, saying he was proceeding at the same pace as the cars around him. But in the end, the penalty had no real effect, as Harvick was able to work his way back up into the top 3.
The problem for Harvick, as it was for Hamlin, was that Johnson was one of the two drivers ahead of him. And it's a testament to Johnson's driving skill that he was there, as he certainly didn't get any help from his pit crew on Sunday. After the widely publicized switch of crews with fellow Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Knaus watched in horror as the "new" 48 team surrendered position after position during pit stops.
Indeed, pit stops, or the lack thereof, were the story of the day. Both Harvick and Hamlin didn't come in for late pit stops at a time when new tires could have changed the balance of the race. That indecisiveness on the part of their crew chiefs could keep Harvick and Hamlin up many nights this offseason.
In the end, though, neither Hamlin nor Harvick has anything to hang their heads over. They raced Johnson as well as anyone has, ever, and they just got flat-out beat. With Harvick as far behind as he was, a second-place finish by Johnson rendered his run moot, mathematically eliminating him. Hamlin, meanwhile, needed to get within four places of Johnson to get the win, but spent most of the second half of the race mired in the teens, doing battle with out-of-the-Chase drivers like Mark Martin and Bill Elliott.
Doubtless, Johnson's win will bring out waves of "I'm done with NASCAR" and "the Chase is fixed" sentiment, but that's just ridiculous, and takes away from the astonishing achievement that Johnson has just nailed down.
You're witnessing one of the greats here, ladies and gentlemen. You're in the greatest championship run in NASCAR history -- and there's no reason to believe it will stop at five.