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Johnson, Mayfield among NASCAR's highs and lows in 2009

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With Jimmie Johnson set to be honored as the Sprint Cup Series champion in the first awards banquet to be held in Las Vegas this week, his record-setting fourth consecutive title tops the NASCAR headlines in a year full of noteworthy highlights and lowlights for the sport.

The season began with major concerns over the economic slowdown affecting sponsorship and manufacturers' support for teams. Then Jeremy Mayfield's fight against NASCAR after his indefinite suspension for a failed drug test moved to the center of attention, before Johnson put on a near-flawless campaign in the 10-race "Chase for the Sprint Cup" championship.

FOUR-PEAT

Johnson rewrote NASCAR's record books when he became the first driver in the 61-year history of the sport to win four Cup championships in a row. He ended the year 141 points ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin, who finished second in points for the fifth time in his career. Johnson also joined Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon as those drivers who have won four or more Cup championships.

Jimmie Johnson rewrote NASCAR's record books when he became the first driver in the 61-year history of the sport to win four Cup championships in a row.
"The fact that nobody has done this, I think it puts me near the top," Johnson said. "I certainly look at the seven championships by both Earnhardt and Petty, their race wins, their being in the sport for the number of years and all that they've done. Those two guys are kind of at a draw at the top.

"Hopefully my stats and win totals and championship totals can rival theirs. But it puts us up there, it really does. And the cool thing is we're not done yet. We've got a lot of racing left ahead of us. So hopefully we can improve on that."

Johnson was on cruise control in this year's Chase before his hiccup at Texas made things interesting in the playoffs. However, Johnson bounced back by winning at Phoenix and then secured the title with a fifth-place finish in the season-finale at Homestead.

Since NASCAR's playoff format began in 2004, Johnson has won 18 Chase races, including four this year. His dominance likely will continue next season when he attempts the "drive for five."

HENDRICK DYNASTY CONTINUES

While celebrating his silver anniversary in Cup competition this year, Rick Hendrick became the first team owner to finish 1-2-3 in the point standings. Gordon ended the year third in points (-179). Hendrick's ninth owners' championship placed him in a tie with Petty Enterprises for most all-time in the series. He also surpassed Richard Childress for most owner titles combined in NASCAR's three national touring series with 12.

Martin had a sensational season in his first year with Hendrick, as the 50- year-old driver notched five wins. Gordon ended a career-long 47-race winless streak in April, when he won at Texas for the first time.

Johnson, Martin and Gordon basked in success this year, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. endured a disappointing season by finishing a career-worst 25th in points. Earnhardt Jr. -- NASCAR's most popular driver -- ended the season with no victories and just five top-10 finishes.

Hendrick recently said his top priority is to put Earnhardt Jr.'s team back on track. In May, Lance McGrew took over crew chief duties for Earnhardt Jr. on an interim bases, while Tony Eury Jr. was reassigned to another role within the organization. Hendrick later named McGrew as the permanent crew chief.

MAYFIELD VS. NASCAR

One month after starting his own Cup team, Jeremy Mayfield became one of the feel-good stories at the start of the season when he qualified for the Daytona 500. But Mayfield's failed drug test in May hit like a bombshell. The veteran driver was suspended indefinitely after he violated NASCAR's revised substance abuse policy.

NASCAR claims Mayfield tested positive for methamphetamines, but Mayfield continues to dispute the results. The conflict between the two turned into an ongoing saga when each party subsequently filed lawsuits in the months that followed.

Mayfield currently is suing NASCAR, but has been troubled with a lawsuit brought against him by his former attorneys for unpaid legal fees.

STATE OF THE SPORT

The economic crises had a significant impact on NASCAR in many areas. Track attendance was down. Lack of sponsorship dollars and reduced support from manufacturers, particularly Chevrolet and Chrysler, forced several teams to merge and lay off a substantial number of personnel. NASCAR eliminated testing at all sanctioned tracks in its three major series as a cost-cutting measure for teams.

Despite the economic whirlwind, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France recently said the future of the sport looks bright as far as sponsorship is concerned.

"Although I will tell you we're starting to see, get inquiries in our New York group, the teams which do the selling of the sport, they're starting to feel the ice thawing on that," France said. "I think you'll see some companies over the offseason that are very close to joining us at one level or another."

A reduced television audience also plagued NASCAR this year, with most races featuring a double-digit decrease in TV ratings.

"There are a lot of reasons that ratings go up and down," France said. "There are literally a dozen different things that factor into that. I won't get into all of them. Needless to say, if you're a sport that has rising rates or slightly declining rates, you want to be mindful of all of those things and do the best you can to help drive interest in your sport. We're going to do all those things that we possibly can and more."

The state of NASCAR likely will be on the mend in the near future, but the return to its glory days from years ago is unforeseeable.

TALLADEGA FRIGHTS

NASCAR dodged a bullet at its most controversial track -- Talladega -- in April when Carl Edwards walked away unhurt from a spectacular crash on the final lap.

After being bumped by eventual race winner Brad Keselowski, Edwards' car spun, hit third-place runner Ryan Newman and then flew into the safety fence along the frontstretch at Talladega. Eight race fans sustained minor injuries after being struck by debris from his car.

Many drivers, including Edwards, questioned NASCAR's approach to improving safety in restrictor plate racing.

"Hopefully, [NASCAR] can do something somehow to change this style of racing," Edwards said. "I guess we'll do this until somebody gets killed, and then we'll change it, but that's the way it is."

NASCAR and track officials had their work cut out for them before the series returned to Talladega in November. Even though the frontstretch and backstretch fences were raised, NASCAR exposed itself to more controversy when it placed a ban on bump-drafting through the high-banking turns for the fall race there.

Hours after NASCAR issued its stern warning on bump-drafting, drivers responded in a way that made for tedious single-file racing for a majority of the race. It wasn't until the final 20 laps that things livened up at Talladega. And so did the mayhem and wrecks.

DOUBLE-FILE RESTARTS

Beginning with the June race at Pocono, NASCAR made a change with its Cup race format with the addition of double-file restarts throughout each event. The rule change became very popular with the fans, but made many drivers nervous at first.

The first-and-second place drivers line up side-by-side for the restart, but the leader has the option to run on the inside or outside line when the race resumes.

Double-file restarts have made for frantic racing, especially in the final laps.

NASCAR instituted the new restart procedure for its Nationwide Series later in the year. The Camping World Series will adopt the rule change at the start of next season.

SEASON SURPRISES

Perhaps the biggest surprise this season was Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth not making the Chase. Busch came up eight points short of making the playoffs, despite his four Cup victories during the regular season. Kenseth won the first two races of the year -- Daytona and California -- but faltered from there and missed the Chase for the first time.

After winning a series-high nine races in 2008, Carl Edwards surprisingly failed to make it into victory lane this season. Edwards broke his foot while playing frisbee in September, but the injury didn't seem to hinder his racing.

Tony Stewart made an impression on his fellow competitors by winning four races in his first year as driver and owner. He held the points lead before starting the Chase in the second seed. Mark Martin secured the top seed by virtue of his four victories during the regular season. Stewart ended the year sixth in points, while his teammate, Ryan Newman, finished ninth.

Juan Pablo Montoya and Brian Vickers, unlikely Chase contenders at the start of the season, made the playoffs for the first time. Montoya arguably was the most improved driver this year. Vickers struggled to qualify for a race in his first season with Red Bull Racing in 2007, but has since elevated himself to a title contender.

DANICA-MANIA

Get ready, NASCAR. IndyCar star Danica Patrick likely will make her foray into stock car racing next year. Patrick already has signed a three-year agreement to stay with her IndyCar team at Andretti Autosport, but reportedly is in negotiations with JR Motorsports -- a team co-owned by Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick -- to run a limited schedule in NASCAR and the ARCA Series.

Patrick's future with NASCAR has been a topic of conversation since the summer, when she visited several race teams in Charlotte and expressed an interest in stock cars. Stewart said in September that Patrick seriously is considering a switch.

For quite some time, NASCAR has been savoring the possibility that Patrick will come to their sport, given her enormous popularity and wide marketability.

VIVA LAS VEGAS

NASCAR's awards banquet is set to take place in Las Vegas for the first time, after New York hosted the season-ending event for the last 28 years. NASCAR made the decision in April to move the banquet from the Big Apple to Sin City.

"It's going to be fun," said Kurt Busch, a native of Las Vegas. "There's going to be that atmosphere that everybody feels when they go to Vegas, that is let loose, let your hair down and have fun that you're going to have whether it's out at the gambling tables, nightclubs, restaurants, hotels, everything there to me says 'fun.'"

After Friday's ceremony at the Wynn Las Vegas, it's just two months before the roar of engines fill the air at Daytona once again.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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