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click image to zoomHOMESTEAD, Fla. – Denny Hamlin found redemption for a lost season, as Jimmie Johnson advanced to the threshold of legend.

Sidelined for four races with a broken back earlier in the season, Hamlin took the checkered flag in Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, as Johnson claimed his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship with a ninth-place finish.

Johnson finished the season 19 points ahead of polesitter and race runner-up Matt Kenseth, who held off a furious charge by third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the closing laps. With six NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, Johnson is one behind all-time leaders Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

The title was a record 11th for team owner Rick Hendrick.

"I don't even know where to start," Johnson said after the race. "I'm at a loss for words, but I'm 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.

"This sport is about people, and our people at Hendrick Motorsports – especially on this 48 car – rose up and got the job done. I'm so thankful to be able to drive for this race team and so honored and so excited to have a 'six-pack.'"

Hamlin won for the first time this season, the second time at Homestead and the 23rd time in his career. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has won at least one race in each of his eight full seasons in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

As elated as he was with the victory, Hamlin took time to acknowledge the excellence of Johnson and his No. 48 team. Johnson's average finish in the 10 Chase races was 5.1.

"I think they do a great job of being consistent," Hamlin said. "Really, I'd say with everyone else in the Chase, you can almost count on them having one bad race. The 48, they just never have that one bad race. I don't know how to explain it, but they just don't make any mistakes. You have to beat him on performance. To do that, that's really hard.

"Unfortunately, we're racing during the Jimmie Johnson Era. We're just unlucky in that sense. I think being out there and racing with him, I can say that I think he's the best that there ever was."

Martin Truex Jr. completed his tenure at Michael Waltrip Racing with a fourth-place run, one spot ahead of teammate Clint Bowyer. Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Johnson and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top 10.

Johnson's path to the title was far from easy. Moments after a restart on Lap 194, Paul Menard rammed the back of Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet as the outside line checked up. The impact jerked Johnson's car sideways, but the five-time champion was able to regain control and keep the car off the outside wall.

His momentum sapped, however, Johnson plummeted to 23rd in the running order, the precise finishing position he needed to secure his sixth championship. Over the next nine laps, Johnson recovered to 16th and drove the No. 48 out of the danger zone.

From that point on, he advanced as high as sixth before finishing ninth, and the sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup title was his.

"I had contact from behind that pushed me into the 20 (Kenseth), and both of us were out of control and sliding toward the outside fence at that point," Johnson said. "I didn't know what to think. That 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."


Even Without Title, 2013 Was Kenseth's Best Season

Mike Hembree – Special to the NASCAR Wire Service

The year that Matt Kenseth described as "unbelievable" ended one position short of the ultimate goal – the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

But that didn't stop Kenseth from enjoying what he called the best year of his racing career. At the age of 41, he showed that his somewhat controversial move from a long stay at Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing was not only smart but very close to brilliant.

The 2003 champion fell 19 points short of winning a second championship, leading the circuit in victories with seven and riding in the top 10 in points for the last 30 races of the season.

After a nearly disastrous race last week at Phoenix, Kenseth knew the odds were stacked very high against him as NASCAR made its final seasonal stop at Homestead- Miami Speedway. Eventual champion Jimmie Johnson needed only a 23rd-place finish to lock up his sixth title and Kenseth needed something of a miracle to supplant him atop the standings.

That miracle didn't come (Johnson finished ninth), but it wasn't for the No. 20 team's lack of trying.

Kenseth won the pole, led the first 11 laps of the race, led the most laps (144) and thrilled the grandstand crowd by battling Dale Earnhardt Jr. for second place over the closing laps. Kenseth won that battle while losing the war.

"You never concede it to them (the 48 team) until it's done," Kenseth said. "They just seem to be able to raise the bar. If they don't have any kind of problem, they're capable of winning every week. If they don't win, they're going to finish in the top five."

Kenseth again called this his best season, despite the fact that he won the series championship in 2003. "We didn't come up with the championship -- the championship is the ultimate goal," he said. "You always want that, but from a competitive standpoint, it's been by far the best season of my career. We led the most laps, qualified the best, most wins, all that stuff."

The closeness of the Johnson-Kenseth battle was illustrated late in the race on a green-flag restart when their cars clanged together as much of the field scattered in the first turn. Both cars had minor damage.

"I didn't even know we had contact on the restart," Kenseth said. "It was the weirdest thing. I got off the gas not to wreck. I got hit in the right rear. If it was Jimmie, I had no idea until you just told me. I didn't know where he was.

"Jimmie 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."

Winless 2013 belies 2014 optimism For Dale Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s season ended with a glaring "0" in the victory column, but his run over the schedule's final two months kept the spark of optimism alive in the No. 88 team.

Earnhardt finished third to winner Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth in Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead- Miami Speedway and claimed fifth in the final points standings. In the season's last nine races, he had only one finish worse than eighth and scored three seconds.

"I'm really happy to run as well as we have this season," Earnhardt said. "This has been one of the best years I've had, certainly the best year I've had working with Hendrick (Motorsports, which he joined for the 2008 season). Just want to give my team a lot of credit. Steve Letarte (crew chief), my engineers, did just an amazing job providing these good cars every week. I'm hoping next year we continue that trend and that trajectory and get a shot at winning a championship. I think we can do it."

Earnhardt led 28 laps, including four of the final 30, Sunday and battled Hamlin and Kenseth in the top three over the closing miles.

"We came here and tested," he said. "Really liked how that worked out. Worked on the car real hard Saturday. Worked on it real smart. Felt like we had a car that was going to come to us, and it surely did. We weren't that great at the start of the race, but as the race wore on, the thing really came to life."

The same could be said of Earnhardt's season. After some tough going in the spring and summer, the 88 team became a force to be reckoned with in the Chase period. Only a blown motor – and a 35th-place finish – in the Chase opener at Chicago stained the closing run.

What sparked the surge?

"I've asked Steve over and over, asked my car chief, Jason (Burdett), over and over, and asked everybody on the team at least once or twice what we're doing different," Earnhardt said. "They said they're not doing anything different. You know, I really don't know why. I have the same feeling – like our cars are way faster. We have been more competitive, I think, not as a company – I just think the 88 team has really stepped it up.

"But each year, like I said, we've gotten better. When we first started working together, it's easy to forget about all this, but when me and Steve started working together, we were working our guts out to finish in the top 10. Each year it's kind of gotten easier to run a little better."


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