For the first half of Sunday's NASCAR race at Phoenix, everything seemed to be going according to the same script as last year's Chase.
Just as Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart battled in an ultra-close race where every point counted, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski appeared to be headed in the same direction. Surely, the championship would not be decided until the final lap at Homestead.
Keselowski was running in the top five and Johnson had cracked the top 10, meaning they were tied in points or just several points apart in the "as they run" standings.
And then? Johnson shockingly hit the wall after he melted a bead due to excessive brake heat and blew a right-front tire.
It was absolutely stunning to see such a fate befall the five-time NASCAR champion, because he always seems to overcome any setbacks – even at Kansas last month, when he backed into the wall.
This time, though, Johnson had to go to the garage. He lost 38 laps in the process of repairs and finished 32nd, dropping him 20 points out of the Chase lead with just one race remaining.
Even if Johnson wins next week's race at Homestead and leads the most laps, Brad Keselowski can win the series title with a finish of 15th or better.
"It's unfortunate to have the day end like this," Johnson said, "and potentially end our season and hopes for a championship this way."
Johnson was going after his sixth title, which would have made the 2013 season all about whether the Hendrick Motorsports driver could tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for most championships ever. And Johnson said just this weekend that his goal was to win eight career titles so he could be considered the best stock car driver in history.
But that will have to wait – at least it appears that way – after his Phoenix troubles.
"We'll always rally and regroup and do all we can," he said. "Unfortunately, we lost a lot of control – or all control – in the championship. We can go down there and win the race and do everything on our behalf and it still won't net us a championship.
"So we'll just go down and do our part and see how things unfold. Today was proof that anything can happen in this sport."
Before Johnson hit the wall, he said there was a "slight vibration" but he didn't think enough of it to consider there was a tire going down. Unfortunately for him, the tire went flat heading into the corner and he went straight for the wall; another 30 or 40 feet, he said, and it just would have been a flat tire with no wall contact.
"I just hate for our day to turn out as it did today, but that's racing," Johnson said. "We will go to Homestead and do all we can down there and see how things pan out."