A month ago, Jimmie Johnson thought he'd lost his chance to win this year's Nextel Cup championship.
On Oct. 12, the morning after he finished 32nd at Kansas to fall 247 points behind Kurt Busch in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus decided to change their approach for the final six races.
"We said, 'Let's just go out and win the rest of the races,' " Johnson said.
That has turned out to be quite an effective plan.
When Johnson won Sunday's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, it was the fourth time in five races he's pushed his No. 48 Chevrolet to victory.
After consecutive wins at Charlotte, Martinsville and Atlanta, he finished "only" sixth at Phoenix. But Sunday he passed Jamie McMurray for the lead with nine laps to go and held off a late Mark Martin rush for his eighth victory of the season.
For most of a cool afternoon -- and early evening, as the race finished under Darlington's new lights -- it looked as though Johnson or teammate Jeff Gordon might go into next week's season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway leading in the standings.
Kurt Busch started the day with a 41-point lead over Gordon and 48 over Johnson. But when Busch tangled with Brendan Gaughan's Dodge on Lap 115, he crinkled up his No. 97 Ford and spent the next couple of hours trying to recover.
Johnson had led 107 of the first 195 laps, but fell to 11th after a lug nut got caught between his rotor and wheel hub on a pit stop. Gordon then took charge, leading 137 of the next 140 laps.
Busch, meanwhile, was 21st after making a pair of pit stops under a caution around Lap 250 to adjust his ill-handling Ford. Busch was still 14th on Lap 310, with Gordon still leading and Johnson up to third.
But thanks to what happened from there, Busch came out of the day with an 18-point lead on Johnson and a 21-point edge on Johnson, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. 72 back and Mark Martin 82 behind.
This is the closest points race in NASCAR history heading into the season finale. The last time this many people were in the hunt for a championship entering the season's final race was in 1992, when six drivers were 113 points apart.
"This is what we have now with the points structure, a playoff system where everybody is on edge, everybody has to make those split-second decisions and drive the same way," Busch said. "There's no real template on what to do because this has never been done before."
Gordon's road to what would have been his record sixth career Southern 500 victory in the final scheduled running of this 55-year-old event detoured on a pit stop on Lap 337. The air hose got trapped under the right-rear tire of the No. 24 Chevrolet -- causing a delay as they pulled it out from under a tire -- and Gordon fell to seventh for a restart on Lap 341.
"Those kind of mistakes can cost you a championship," said Gordon, who has won four of them. "Even if you throw the championship away, I wanted to win. . . . I am disgusted right now by the fact we gave this one away.
He sounded pretty angry, too, especially when he said "extra pit practice" would be essential this week in preparation for the finale.
Johnson's crew got him off pit road first, meanwhile, and Johnson fended off Carl Edwards' bid for the lead on Lap 343 with a crossover pass in turns 1-2. Two laps later, Kevin Harvick's car stopped on the track and another yellow came out.
Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne didn't pit, and Knaus was telling Johnson to stay out, too. But when Johnson saw the people behind him lining up to come in, he called an audible and pitted.
The race restarted on Lap 350, and it took until Lap 359 for Johnson to set up and pass Kahne and then McMurray. From there, he was on his way. Martin came to second with a pass on the next-to-last lap, and Gordon got McMurray for third just past the white flag. Kahne held on for fifth.
Earnhardt's battery went dead late in the race, and only a timely caution helped him avoid a disastrous finish. His crew had time to change the battery under caution, and he salvaged an 11th-place finish. But he lost ground in the Chase. He's fourth, 72 points back.
"That's too many, too many points," he said.
Busch, meanwhile, had rallied. He raced to 10th before the final two yellows, moved up when Robby Gordon and Ryan Newman had trouble and gained more spots thanks to quick work by his crew. He was third for the restart on Lap 341 and fourth, right behind Johnson, on the final restart. Even though he dropped to sixth at the checkered flag, it was enough to leave him in the Chase lead going to the final Sunday of the season.
"No matter what the outcome is, we've done the best possible job," said Busch, who has eight top-10 finishes in nine Chase races, with seven of those being sixth or better. "Everybody can smile about it and we now have a clean slate going into the final race. Everybody is running competitively and this is what the Chase was intended to do. We have to go and win now."
It certainly has worked for Johnson.
After 9 of 10 races
1. Kurt Busch6,346--
2. Jimmie Johnson6,32818
3. Jeff Gordon6,32521
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.6,27472
5. Mark Martin6,26482
6. Tony Stewart6,161185
7. Ryan Newman6,102244
8. Matt Kenseth5,963383
9. Elliott Sadler5,963383
10. Jeremy Mayfield5,942404