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Do NASCAR's finest now once again have a harder 'edge' out there on the track?

  Denny Hamlin, first to the finish line of the 2009 season, at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   It was a very hot night here at the gateway to the Keys….just like it was Saturday.
   Jimmie Johnson, no surprise, got that fourth Sprint Cup championship, an amazing achievement, historic. Teammate Mark Martin came up just shy, by 141 points, after 10 long months, capped by the 10-race chase.
   And Denny Hamlin bounced back from a run of DNFs to score his fourth win of the season, over the rebounding Richard Childress guys, Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick.
    But it was the sense that something may be changing a bit in this sport, over the past few weeks – that it may be becoming a little more feisty.
    -- The Denny Hamlin-Brad Keselowski series of encounters, including Saturday's 'pay back' by Hamlin, a run that probably isn't over yet.
    -- And Sunday night Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya got into it too, several times. First Stewart spinning Montoya; then Montoya, after behind-the-wall repairs, crashing Stewart and drawing a NASCAR penalty. 
    It might be that the sport is suddenly getting feistier again.
   Or it may just be the final weeks of a very, very long season, and all the built-up frustrations coming out.
   Harvick perhaps put it most clearly: "You have those moments when you lose your mind and lose your temper and just want to run over somebody.
     "But I don't want to get out a car to fight with somebody. You grow out of that."
    Eventually, perhaps.
    We'll see when the clan regroups again at Daytona for the start of the 2010 season. And the Daytona 500 is just 84 days away.
    Car owner Rick Hendrick made history himself with a ninth championship as team owner. But Hendrick wasn't here for the race; he had to fly home to Charlotte for a family medical emergency, involving the 29-year-old daughter of his late brother John.
    "So there's a little dark cloud over it all, because of the illness in the family back in Charlotte," Martin pointed out.
     Martin himself, one of the best in NASCAR history never to have won a title, in a career that began back in 1981, refused to be downcast about losing this title to Johnson.
   "To me it was just incredible to have a chance at this title in this the last race, and that is quite an accomplishment," Martin said.
   "There is no frustration. I'm very proud of what we accomplished. And on top of that, I had more fun than anybody.
   "I had a blast. It's been an honor and a privilege. And I never left anything on the table.  I didn't anything out there. And we accomplished more than anybody else in the garage…except Jimmie. And that ought to make us proud.
   "I am one of the luckiest guys in the world.
   "This is the first time in a long time I'm not just glad it's over with. I'm a happy guy."
    And Martin's prediction so many years ago that Joey Logano -- now just 19, and clinching rookie-of-the-year here – would become a great NASCAR racer has obviously come true: "It's nice to say 'I told you so'," Martin said with a grin.


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