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NASCAR At Phoenix: Jimmie Johnson's Last Stand - For Now

While the focus will no doubt be on the title fight between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 will effectively mark the end of Jimmie Johnson's five-consecutive Sprint Cup titles, a record that stands among the greatest in racing history.

In all likelyhood, the NASCAR Sprint Cup title will either come down to Carl Edwards or Tony Stewart, They hold a collective 33-point edge on third-placed Kevin Harvick with two races remaining. Unless the unthinkable happens and both drivers suffer a disastrous outting Sunday at the Phoenix International Raceway, that is not a margin that will be made up in two races.

It is also likely that Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 will effectively end Jimmie Johnson's championship reign, though it won't officially come to a close, of course, until the trophy is in the new champion's hand.

The five-time defending series champion sits 55 points behind Edwards and 52 markers back of Stewart. The maximum point gain is 47 points (46 points for winning the race, one bonus point for leading a lap, and another bonus point for leading the most laps, while the leader finishes last), meaning that even if Johnson and his Chad Knaus-led team were to run the table with a dominant performance while Edwards and Stewart finished 42nd and 43rd, he still would not be able to overtake them in the standings.

Furthermore, if Johnson can not knock the margin down to 47 points or less leaving Phoenix, he will officially be eliminated from the title fight with one race remaining for the first time since 2003 - his second season on the Sprint Cup circuit and the last prior to the Chase format.

In effect, one of the most impressive runs of success in sporting history has likely seen its final championship. Johnson's five-consecutive titles are, by two, a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series record. Cale Yarborough is the only other driver to even record three in a row, which he did from 1976-78.

Critics claim Johnson's streak is not as  impressive as - or at least not more impressive than - other dominant stretches in the past, such as David Pearson's three titles in four years from 1966-1969 (in the only three seasons he ran the full schedule), Dale Earnhardt's six championships from 1986-94, or Jeff Gordon's four championships and 56 race wins from 1995-2001. Those titles were all won under full-season formats, while Johnson's titles have all come during the 10-race Chase playoff format instituted for the 2004 season.

In any case, it is still without doubt one of the greatest stretches in stock car racing history and one that very well could be rekindled with a sixth championship in 2012. It has all but assured that the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet will stand in NASCAR lore alongside other famous rides like Richard Petty's No. 43, Earnhardt's No. 3, Gordon's No. 24, or the Wood Brothers No. 21 car.

For now, however, the reign is over and racing pundits and fans alike can finally sit back and take a solid look at a finished picture of the No. 48 team's domination. And even though a title might not be in the cards for this year, don't be surprised if Johnson picks up a win - or two - in the remaining pair of races on the schedule. He has a record four wins at Phoenix, and while he has never won at Homestead, one can likely attribute that to the fact that he has rarely needed to race for a win there.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.