HOMESTEAD, Fla. - The chance to see anguished owner Rick Hendrick accept a championship at NASCAR's season-ending ceremony made Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon want the series title even more.
The realization that the dream scenario won't play out that way made losing harder to accept.
Johnson and Gordon each led the Nextel Cup points race at various times during Sunday's season-ending Ford 400, yet neither could finish the job and deliver Hendrick Motorsports another championship.
Johnson ended the year in second place, eight points behind winner Kurt Busch, with Gordon in third, 16 back.
"It's a disappointment, no matter what," said Gordon, who narrowly missed becoming the third NASCAR driver to win five series titles. "But knowing we had an opportunity to do something really special like that made it that much more meaningful - so it also makes it that much more disappointing."
Hendrick was at the race, watching his teams for the first time since an Oct. 24 plane crash near Martinsville, Va., killed 10, including his son, his brother, two nieces and employees. Had either Johnson or Gordon won the series crown, it would have been Hendrick's sixth title in 20 years as a NASCAR owner.
It certainly wouldn't soothe Hendrick's pain, but probably would have eased it, if only for a moment.
"For the loss of so many people that were there, it's amazing that we were able to finish where we did and have the comeback that we did," said Johnson, who won four of five races before Sunday's finale. "I wish we could have gotten the job done, but we can go to bed tonight knowing that we gave 100 percent, that we gave everything we could."
The revamped NASCAR scoring system - a 10-race chase to the finish among the top 10 drivers - was designed with the hopes of adding extra intrigue to the season's final races, and its inaugural run delivered. Five drivers came to Homestead with a chance to claim the Nextel Cup title, four seeking their first championship.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin both realistically needed to win the race and hope that Busch, Johnson and Gordon all finished well back. That didn't happen.
Johnson finished second, Gordon third and Busch fifth - resulting in the tightest championship race in NASCAR history. Martin was 11th Sunday and fourth in final points; Earnhardt was 23rd in the last race, fifth for the year.
"The car was really good at one point, but from there on out it was the worst car I ever drove," Earnhardt said.
With 75 laps to go, Busch, Gordon and Johnson were separated in the title chase by only two points - and Martin loomed just 23 points behind Busch. Martin fell to 26th place when he pitted for a flat tire on lap 229, a problem that sent him 96 points behind the three chase leaders and ended his chances.
"With the way things turned out, the best we could have done was fourth, and we did that," Martin said.
Johnson led the series with eight wins this year, but will spend the next few months wondering how to get eight points better.
"If it's meant to be, it's meant to be," Johnson said. "And it wasn't in the cards for us this year."
The race went down to the wire, just as NASCAR hoped. A green-flag restart for four extra laps capped the season, with Gordon in third, Johnson fourth and Busch fifth.
There wasn't much either of the challengers could do at that point, and Busch hung on for the title.
"It wasn't our day, boys," Gordon said over his team radio moments after the race ended. "It wasn't our year. But we made a hell of an effort. Now we'll go back and try to get them next year."
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