Rivalries a fun sideshow to JJ's 4-peat

11/23/2009 - NASCAR

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Too bad the 2009 NASCAR season is over. Things were just heating up.

In Saturday's Nationwide Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, we saw Denny Hamlin intentionally wreck Brad Keselowski as promised a week earlier and then claim the sun got in his eyes.

In Sunday's Sprint Cup finale, we saw Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart wreck each other on two different occasions, and heard more 12-letter words that can't be repeated in print than we've heard all season.

For the record, the sun was not out.

And oh, by the way, Jimmie Johnson finished a ho-hum fifth place Sunday to claim a record fourth straight Cup championship, and Hamlin won for the third time in the final 11 races to establish himself as a contender for next season.

Fireworks filled the South Florida sky as both drivers celebrated.

But the real fireworks began on Lap 116 of the 267-lap event. That's when Montoya got into the rear of Stewart's car and Stewart retaliated by slamming his No. 14 Chevrolet into the side of the No.42.

Montoya, a crowd favorite among the Latin American crowd in his U.S. hometown, screamed over his radio, "They should park him. If they penalized Denny [Saturday], they should suspend the [insert first 12-letter word]."

NASCAR penalized Hamlin one lap for fulfilling his promise to take out Keselowski on Saturday. The governing body did nothing to Stewart.

But the best was yet to come.

Around Lap 150, crew chief Chad Knaus warned Johnson that Stewart was ahead of him and Montoya "unfortunately" was back on the track after garage time for repairs. It was a warning for Johnson to be careful.

"I probably would do the same thing if I was leading for the championship," said Montoya's crew chief, Brian Pattie, who also knows Stewart well. "That's not a very good recipe."

It got ugly on Lap 155. Without warning to Pattie or anybody else, Montoya spun out Stewart to bring out another caution. He earned a two-lap penalty from NASCAR and a warning that stepping out of line again would earn him a vacation for the rest of the season.

It was great stuff on a night when there wasn't a lot of great passing for the lead.

Had there been so much excitement all season, maybe we wouldn't have had so many complaints about boring racing and how much the new car is hurting the sport. We may not have had grumbling about Johnson ruining the sport with his domination.

We may not have had any moaning about Dale Earnhardt Jr. having a dreadful season and missing yet another Chase.

It was so crazy at one point that there was a multicar pileup on pit road that ended the day of Elliott Sadler (in the 19 car), leading Johnson to say "What the hell happened to the 19?"

It might have gotten crazier after the race had Montoya and Stewart -- whose haulers were conveniently parked side by side -- not disappeared into the darkness without saying a word.

At least it gives us something to look forward to when they are reunited in two weeks at the banquet in Las Vegas. It definitely could make the start of the 2010 season interesting.

Well, at least for the fans. Not Pattie, who hopes Montoya can push Johnson for the championship as well.

"We don't need that stuff next year," Pattie said, noting that Montoya's 38th-place finish dropped him from sixth to eighth in the final standings and Stewart's 22nd dropped him a spot to sixth.

Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick, who finished second and third to give Richard Childress Racing momentum after failing to put a car in the Chase, also don't think it's good for the sport.

"What this sport needs is good racing," Burton said. "It doesn't need running that mouth. Running that mouth is not what it's all about. Good, hard racing is what fans want to see."

Interjected Harvick, "And good, hard racing is going to create its own passion."

Perhaps. But the fans sure seem to enjoy the extracurricular. They cheered loudly Saturday when Hamlin wrecked Keselowski, and just as loudly Sunday after Montoya wrecked Stewart.

"I think everyone has got a little fight in them, especially when they feel they've been wronged," Hamlin said.

Before Hamlin could get too deep into what happened Saturday or Sunday, team president J.D. Gibbs leaned over and shushed him.

And honestly, Hamlin doesn't want to be a trendsetter in that way. He wants to be the kind of trendsetter Johnson has become, winning races and championships at a record pace.

He doesn't want the season to be over, either. Were it not for three DNFs in the Chase -- two for engine failures and one because of a crash -- he might be celebrating the end of Johnson's reign.

Outside of the DNFs, Hamlin had five top-5s, including two wins and two seconds.

"If we just averaged seventh or eighth in those races then we're out on the front stage celebrating," Hamlin said. "On the other hand, maybe [Johnson] performs better, too. All I know is we seem to be good enough to perform with those guys."

Hamlin went so far as to promise that over the next few years he'll win a title.

"The end of this Chase has just made us stronger," he said, basking in the moment of a season-high fourth win. "Now everyone is focused and fired up about next year, knowing we're one of the few guys that can run with [Johnson] each and every week."

Too bad the 2009 season is over. Things were just starting to heat up.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.