HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) – Matt Kenseth made the most of his fighting chance, coming up with the strong performance he’d been missing in the last few races of this Chase for the championship.

He wound 56 points short of the title with a sixth-place finish.

Denny Hamlin (third) and Kevin Harvick (fifth) also raced well Sunday, finishing where they needed to – ahead of Jimmie Johnson.

Still, it wasn’t even close.

Turns out, Johnson was unbeatable after all.

Johnson went into Sunday’s season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway 63 points ahead of Kenseth, and needed only to finish in the top 12 to wrap up his first Cup title.

Ninth place did the trick.

Johnson overcame his typical Chase luck – damage from a piece of debris, a messed-up pit stop, plenty of wrecks in his path – to take the title after falling short twice before.

A quartet of drivers who went into the race with a mathematical chance of overtaking the leader gave it a great effort, with Kenseth, Hamlin and Harvick finishing ahead of Johnson and the other contender, Dale Earnhardt Jr., leading the race early before running into problems and winding up 19th.

Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, didn’t appear the least disappointed after finishing fifth in the race and holding off rookie Hamlin for the runner-up spot by just 12 points. It was only the third top-five finish in the 10-race Chase for the championship for Kenseth.

“It was a great season, probably one of our best seasons that we’ve ever had,” Kenseth said. “In ’03 we were very consistent and did a lot of things right, but this year we probably performed the best and we’ve been the most consistent we ever have (been).

“So, overall, it’s been a great year. I wish we could have taken some of our strong runs and put them in the Chase a little bit more. But yet, when you look over the entire year, they’re the fastest race cars I ever drove and we had great pit stops all year.”

Asked if he knew the precocious 25-year-old Hamlin, who finished third in the race – behind winner Greg Biffle and Martin Truex Jr. – was closing in on second place in the standings at the end, Kenseth said, “I knew it was pretty close.

“I wanted to make sure we stayed in the position we were in. We battled all night and we ran a lot better than we’ve been running, but still not great.”

Kenseth offered his congratulations to Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team, adding, “They really deserve it. You know they’ve been the guys who have been probably the best overall group with how they’ve performed over the last four years. So they deserve it.”

Hamlin, the first true rookie to make the Chase in the three years since NASCAR went to the playoff format, was happy to break out of a tie with veteran Harvick to finish third in the points.

“I was thinking second (at the end of the race),” the unflappable youngster said. “I think Matt was running seventh and I needed to win the race to move up and I just came up a little short at the end. Martin got a great restart and I got a run on Kasey (Kahne, who finished fourth), but it was not enough. The main thing was to keep the 29 (Harvick) behind me.”

Harvick, who led a resurgence this season at Richard Childress Racing in both Cup and the Busch Series, where he won the championship in a runaway, appeared happy with his fifth-place run on Sunday.

“There is no disappointment here,” he said. “Everybody on the No. 29 team and at RCR has done a great job. We knew coming into the race that, unless the No. 48 team (Johnson) beat themselves, we were kind of the on the outside looking in.”

Earnhardt, the fan favorite, started the race fifth in the points and ended in the same spot. But he, too, appeared pleased with the overall results of 2006.

“I’m real proud of my team,” Junior said. “They’ve got a lot to be happy about with what they’ve been able to accomplish this year, the cars they’ve been able to build.

“My guys are kind of bummed out about the way we finished (today), but they shouldn’t be. We had a great car tonight and we had a great team all year long. We have so much to look forward to and we’ve just got to maintain great positive attitudes over this off season, get some work done, get some great cars built and put it to them next year.”

AP-ES-11-19-06 2038EST

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