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Auto racing's comeback kids in 2010

Sprint Cup

Jimmie Johnson, above, entered the finale 15 points behind Denny Hamlin but ran steadily in the front in the Ford 400. For a time in the second half of the race at Homestead, Hamlin was ahead of Johnson and poised to end the Hendrick Motorsports dynasty. But then Hamlin fell a lap behind, and by the time he unlapped himself, he was too far back to catch up. Johnson finished second in the race and wound up 39 points in front of Hamlin as an exciting three-way fight (third-place Kevin Harvick wound up just 41 points out) came to an end. Fans can debate where Johnson, 35, belongs in the pantheon of champions, but there's no debating his efficiency in the season-ending 10-race Chase for the Championship (see chart, lower left).

IndyCar

Dario Franchitti, above, had almost no chance. With four races left in the season he trailed Will Power by 59 points, more than a full race (53 points are the maximum at one event). But the veteran Scotsman had an ace in the hole: All the remaining races were on ovals. Power owned a series-high five victories, including St. Petersburg, but all were on road or street courses. The Penske Racing driver had never won on an oval, and Franchitti had always been successful on them, including his second Indianapolis 500 victory in May. Sure enough, Franchitti finished first, fifth, second and eighth in the last four races, and in the finale he backed off after Power dropped out because of damage sustained in a brush with the wall. Franchitti, 37, took the championship by five points. And Power still has never won on an oval.

Formula One

Sebastian Vettel, above, completed his sweep of "youngest" records: youngest driver to earn a point; to lead a race; to earn a pole; to earn a victory. In 2010 the 23-year-old German became the youngest world champion, eclipsing the mark Lewis Hamilton set just two years earlier. Vettel took the Red Bull Renault drawn by F1's master designer, Adrian Newey, and combined it with blinding speed to earn 10 pole positions. Vettel made a few mistakes, and at times he and teammate Mark Webber didn't play nice with each other. But Red Bull resisted the temptation to defer to one driver over the other (as Ferrari had by ordering Felipe Massa to let Fernando Alonso pass for a race win) and rode its luck with an almost NASCAR-like "Have at it, boys" attitude. In the end, that choice was inspired.

Vettel entered the finale third in points behind Alonso and Webber but earned a dominating victory from the pole in Abu Dhabi as Alonso and Webber foundered, finishing seventh and eighth, respectively. Vettel won the title by four points, and German fans, who saw seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher return to the series at age 41 to no particular distinction, had a new hero.

Best old man

Michael Schumacher, 41, returned to Formula One, finishing ninth in points. Mark Martin, 51, kept at it in Sprint Cup, barely missing the Chase for the Championship and finishing 13th. But at 61, John Force, above, showed them all a thing or two, earning his 15th NHRA Funny Car championship by winning the season finale in Pomona, Calif. That result combined with a first-round loss for Matt Hagan allowed Force to overtake him for the title.

Information from jayski.com and the Associated Press was used in this report.

Jimmie Johnson, Dario Franchitti and Sebastian Vettel have more in common than just being champions in their series. Each of them won their titles by coming from behind in the final race of the season. Johnson earned his fifth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup title on Sunday, outrunning Denny Hamlin at Homestead-Miami Speedway. At the same track two months earlier, Franchitti wrapped up his second IndyCar title by completing a comeback to overtake Will Power. And Vettel took the Formula One points lead for the first time in his career at the perfect time: the season finale last week in the United Arab Emirates. A closer look at their comebacks:

Another way of looking at it

As NASCAR ponders still more changes to the Chase for the Championship format, it might be time to revisit a topic that isn't mentioned much anymore: Who would have been champ? Under the pre-Chase format with every race counting equally, Kevin Harvick, left, would have been the 2010 Sprint Cup champion. In fact had the Chase not been introduced (assuming all results would have been the same), Jimmie Johnson would only own two titles. Here's a breakdown:

Year Chase Old Way
2006 Johnson 56 points over Matt Kenseth Johnson 4 points over Kenseth
2007 Johnson 77 points over Jeff Gordon Gordon 353 points over Johnson
2008 Johnson 69 points over Carl Edwards Edwards 16 points over Johnson
2009 Johnson 141 points over Mark Martin Johnson 66 points over Jeff Gordon
2010 Johnson 39 points over Denny Hamlin Kevin Harvick, 285 points over Johnson


Scary moment of the year

Near the end of the Indianapolis 500, Mike Conway made contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay's car and flew into the air. Conway's turned upside down, flipped into the catch fence and landed in the track, skidding on its side before stopping. Conway missed the rest of the season with multiple injuries but is expected to return in 2011.

Movements

In Sprint Cup, Paul Menard makes perhaps the biggest offseason leap, joining Richard Childress Racing in a fourth car. Penske will shuffle Kurt Busch to the No. 22 car and Brad Keselowski to the No. 2, with Sam Hornish either moving to No. 12 or staying with No. 77. … In IndyCar, two recent series champions, Tony Kanaan and St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon, are big names looking for rides. … There has been little confirmed in F1 for 2011, but so far Nico Hulkenberg and Nick Heidfeld are the biggest names looking for rides.

Auto racing's comeback kids in 2010

11/26/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:49pm]
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