"We got behind on the spoiler, and that hurt us bad," Hendrick says. "It turned out that all of our engineering work we had done to prepare for the spoiler was off. So we had to go back to the drawing board in the middle of the season. And once you fall behind even a little in this sport, it's hard to catch back up. Gibbs got an advantage on us." Indeed, no team spent more time in the wind tunnel preparing its cars for the spoiler than Joe Gibbs Racing, which proved to be a game changer for Hamlin, Gibbs's marquee driver. After the spoiler was introduced—he won that race at Martinsville last March—Hamlin consistently flashed more raw speed than anyone in the series.
"We struggled over the summer, and we just didn't have the speed that we had in past years," says Johnson, who over a seven-race stretch in July and August finished 22nd or worse five times. "We were more vulnerable heading into this Chase than the last four."
The shortcomings of the number 48 team were most obvious at Texas on Nov. 7. Midway through the race, after Jeff Burton wrecked Jeff Gordon, Johnson's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, Knaus made a move that was both bold and desperate: He benched his pit crew. Frustrated by chronically slow stops—Johnson had been losing spots on pit road for over two months—Knaus told his crew to step aside and installed Gordon's number 24 crew in its place. Knaus made the switch permanent the next day, and in the end it paid off; in the final pit stop of the season at Homestead, Johnson's new crew delivered, beating Hamlin's off pit row by more than a second. "It was embarrassing that I couldn't get our pit crew up to speed," Knaus says, "but the switch was something we had to do."
The key moment of the Chase actually came the following week at Phoenix in the penultimate race of the season. Hamlin had won at Texas (Johnson finished ninth) to increase his lead in the standings to 33 points, and he easily motored to the front of the field in the Arizona desert. Midway through the race, with Johnson running seventh, Hamlin was up more than 100 points. At that moment he and his number 11 crew had their collective boots on the throats of Johnson's team. All Hamlin had to do was hold on and he would be able to coast to the title at Homestead. But after Johnson pitted with 88 laps to go, Knaus told his driver to conserve gas, believing Johnson could finish the race without taking more fuel. Mike Ford, Hamlin's crew chief, gave no such instructions, and Hamlin had to pit 14 laps from the finish. Johnson reached the line on fumes and came in fifth; Hamlin wound up 12th, his points lead cut to 15. Incensed, he punched his dashboard so hard, he bloodied the knuckles on his right hand.
"That was the turning point," Knaus says. "They had us beat, but we outraced them in Phoenix. Sometimes that's hard to swallow and can hurt you going forward. And Phoenix revived Jimmie. It gave him his spark back."
It also set up the closest final-race battle for points of the Chase era, which began in 2004. "This Chase has featured the best racing in the history of our sport," says veteran Michael Waltrip. "All of the Chase races were wild." Adds Tony Stewart, "This is as good as racing gets. If you don't like it and you're a fan, then you're not paying attention."
That, as it turned out, was the problem. In spite of the compelling duel between Johnson and Hamlin over the final six, TV ratings were down from 2009 in every Chase race—in some cases as much as 20%—and attendance dipped in eight of the final 10 races. NASCAR officials offer many explanations for the decline: that the standard start time of races at 1 p.m. EST this season put NASCAR's postseason head-to-head with the NFL; that it will take time for fans to appreciate the high quality of the racing; and that, according to NASCAR chairman Brian France, "some drivers resonate throughout history different than others, better than others," which is one way of saying that Johnson hasn't connected with the sport's blue-collar fans.
So what can be done to give NASCAR the adrenaline shot it seems to need? According to multiple sources in the Cup garage, the organization is leaning toward overhauling the Chase next season. One idea being considered is an elimination-style format—a scenario that appears to have support inside NASCAR's Daytona Beach headquarters would have 15 drivers in a 10-race postseason, with the bottom-five drivers in the Chase being eliminated after five and eight races. This would set up a two-race sprint for the title between the five remaining drivers. A touch gimmicky? Perhaps, but it would virtually guarantee the sort of "Game 7 moments" that France repeatedly has said he desires.
Johnson thrives in such moments, and he's now taking dead aim on NASCAR's most hallowed record: seven championships, which is how many Petty and Earnhardt both won. Johnson is on a record-shattering pace; he's won his five titles in just 327 career Cup races. Earnhardt needed 390 races to win five, Petty 655. What's scary for the rest of the sport is that Johnson and his number 48 team should be even better in 2011, after an entire off-season in which to find more speed and fix their pit-crew woes. Hendrick has the richest organization in NASCAR, so Johnson and Knaus can devote an abundance of resources to solving these problems.
Johnson knows he's closing on an achievement that seemed unimaginable five years ago. More than three hours after his crew began calling him Five Timer, he walked along the frontstretch, only feet from where he crossed the finish line. It was dark and quiet, but in the distance he could see, sitting under a bank of lights in the infield, five twinkling Sprint Cup trophies. "For the first time seven seems like a number that could be attained," Johnson said softly. "But just because we have five doesn't mean we'll automatically get there. Sports don't work that way. We're going to work, because we're still hungry."