Jimmie Johnson ran a nearly flawless race on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, deftly avoiding accidents during three hours of bumper-car-style racing at NASCAR's shortest track (.526 mile) and generally reminding everyone in the Cup garage that he's the best stock car driver of his generation. But for all his efforts, Johnson did not have a car capable of beating race-winner Tony Stewart, and his second-place finish unofficially marked the end of something: his reign atop the sport.
With three races left, Johnson, the five-time defending Sprint Cup champion, trails Carl Edwards by 43 points. That Johnson could gain only seven points on Edwards, who finished ninth at Martinsville, underscored that the deficit is simply too big for him to overcome by the finish of the season finale at Homestead on Nov. 20. "At the start of the year I said I thought [Edwards] would be the guy to focus on," Johnson said. "I definitely know what he's capable of."
Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, committed several uncharacteristic mistakes during this Chase. Johnson ran out of gas on the final lap of the postseason opener at Chicagoland Speedway (he finished 10th); he wrecked hard at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 15 after putting his number 48 Chevy in a precarious position (he wound up 34th); and he waited too long at Talladega Superspeedway to make his typical late-race charge from the back of the pack (he came in 26th).
Yet Johnson, who at age 36 is still in the prime of his career, will certainly be a force in the Cup series next year and for years to come. Knaus will return as his crew chief in 2012, and all the key crewmen from the number 48 team are also expected to be back. All of which means one thing: Mr. Five-Time will again be the driver to beat.