HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Three in a row. And counting?
Jimmie Johnson matched Cale Yarborough by winning a third straight championship in NASCAR's top series Sunday, finishing 15th in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Carl Edwards won the race, his third victory in the final four races of this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, by stretching his fuel mileage over the final laps to score his series-best ninth victory of the season.
But Johnson, who came in leading by 141 points, still wound 69 points ahead of Edwards, completing a second straight 10-race playoff without a finish worse than 15th and further securing his increasing spot in the sport's history.
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"In my eyes, he's the best there's ever been," said Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, who became the first crew chief to win three straight championship. Herb Nab was Yarborough's crew chief when he won the 1976 and 1977 titles, but was not in that role for the third championship in 1978.
"I don't know how you can doubt the talent he's got," said car owner Rick Hendrick, who secured his eight championship, second only to the 10 won by Petty Enterprises. "I don't think he has received the respect he deserves. ...But what he has accomplished speaks for itself. I am just glad I don't have to race against him."
Edwards, however, does have to race against him, and the way he performed in the Chase this year served notice that Johnson's bid for a history-making fourth straight title certainly won't be easy.
"I would be glad to be the guy to deny him that," said Edwards, who finished fourth or better in eight of the 10 Chase races but lost too much ground when he wrecked at Talladega and had two brand-new ignition boxes fail at the same time the following weekend at Charlotte.
"My guys performed well enough to win the championship, and the way Jimmie's team has performed, that's no small feat," Edwards said. "I know we didn't win the championship, but we won the most races this season. I am really proud of these guys. ... You can't lose when you give it 100 percent."
While Edwards and his team shape us as potentially formidable foes for next year, Johnson and his team continue their reign over stock-car racing's premiere series. The No. 48 Chevrolet has won 22 races in its three-year run of championships, including eight in the Chase in those three seasons.
Johnson said he has tried hard during this year's playoff to stay away from the comparisons between his championship run and Yarborough's. For that reason, he said, he found it difficult Sunday night to put what he's done in perspective.
But he had less difficulty dealing with the inevitable question about what's next.
"It's not that we are chasing a number," Johnson said. "We know what we are capable of. ... We know we can do better, and it's that search for trying to do better more than it is a search for any number."
The next number, though, is four. And Knaus is ready for go get it.
"Why not?" he said. "That's why we're here. With team we have and resources we have behind us, we think we can bid for four in a row. Why wouldn't we? To get to four in a row you have to get to three."
Johnson, Knaus and their No. 48 team got there by running a solid race Sunday. Johnson started 30th after running what he called "our only bad lap of the weekend" in qualifying. But he worked his way patiently toward the front and never was out of a championship comfort zone. He was running in the top five until he came to pit road for two tires and fuel on Lap 254 because there was no reason for him not to play it safe.
Edwards, who'd pushed his fuel mileage to a victory two weeks ago at Texas, had the opposite approach all day. He led 153 of the first 169 laps but found himself fighting to get back to the front after a mid-race spate of caution flags and pit stops shook things up.
After pit stops under a yellow that came out on Lap 208, Matt Kenseth and Edwards went into a fuel conservation mode. But Kenseth was leading, and Edwards wanted to.
"I was really nervous that Matt was going to make it," said Edwards, who urged crew chief Bob Osborne to let him go hard until he caught up.
Kenseth was leading on Lap 264, but when his No. 17 Ford came off Turn 4 it sputtered and slowed. Edwards passed him for the lead, which was a good thing, but it also worried him that his Roush Fenway Racing teammate had come up more than three laps short.
"When Matt ran out," Edwards said. " ... I thought, 'Man, I have screwed this up.' "
Edwards made it, but a slew of cars ran out trying. Kenseth finished 25th, one spot behind David Ragan, who also ran out on the final lap. Kyle Busch did, too, and finished 19th.
All of that allowed Kevin Harvick to finish second, which moved Harvick up one spot to fourth in the final standings behind Johnson, Edwards and Greg Biffle. Jamie McMurray finished third in the race, his third straight third-place finish.