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HOMESTEAD, Fla. Jimmie Johnson's chase of a sixth Sprint Cup title, so seemingly close to becoming reality just a week earlier, ended abruptly and prematurely on Sunday.
Johnson, the overall Cup points leader entering the previous week's race at Phoenix, ran strong but suffered a late pit-road penalty and then an early exit in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The No. 48 finished 36th, relegating Johnson to third overall -- 40 points behind champion Brad Keselowski and a point behind Clint Bowyer.
In the days approaching the Ford EcoBoost 400, Johnson was 20 points behind in second place and not shy about saying Keselowski would face much pressure on race day.
"I would have hate to come out here and do the trash-talking I did to start week, and run 25th all night long," Johnson said. "I'm proud of the fact we went out there and backed up what we said we could do. We put the pressure on him."
Keselowski began the day needing a 15th-place finish or better to secure the championship, no matter what Johnson did.
Johnson's plan was to win the race and hope Keselowski found trouble in one way or another.
Johnson ran ahead of Keselowski most of the afternoon, though the overall leader consistently remained in the Top 12. After 150 laps of the 267 lap-race, however, the two drivers were tied in overall points.
Then Johnson took the race lead on Lap 201. Things were getting interesting.
On Lap 213, Johnson pitted but was penalized for missing a lug nut on his left rear tire -- so much for interesting.
On Lap 226, Johnson pulled in after smelling smoke in the cockpit and headed to the garage.
Race over. Season over. Chase over.
"Usually you're smelling someone else's oil. I was smelling mine," Johnson said.
Keselowski also knew something had been in the air.
"He's the best. He proved it here today," Keselowski said of Johnson. "He was going to win this damn race and I know that."
Perhaps the odds simply caught up to Johnson, who captured five straight Cup titles 2006-10.
"We had to have run a bunch of perfect races to win five championships with Jimmie and for Jeff (Gordon) to win four," team owner Rick Hendrick said.
"If you let (Sunday's troubles) destroy you, you'll never win again."
Just a week earlier, Johnson was the one being hunted until a front tire issue caused his car to go in to the wall at Phoenix. A seven-point championship standings lead became a 20-point deficit.
Johnson's five Cup championships leave him two behind career record holders Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
After the race, Johnson initially was told Keselowski finished 21st -- "I about lost my lunch," he said. before learning the new champ finished 15th.
At 37, Johnson has a lot of racing left, though failing to capitalize after being so near can't be easy.
"It sucks to be close and not get it," he said. "The statement I made about eight championships is on that big wish list. We all have a wish list.
"The reality of that is it's something that motivates me. I'm not focused on that number, it was really to give everybody an answer everybody was asking, What's next?'"
Johnson now has three months to think about how to answer that question in 2013.
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