And then there were five. After 35 races, over 10,000 laps and countless hours spent behind the wheel, the final race of the season comes down to five drivers from five different organizations battling for the 2006 Nextel Cup championship. There is Jimmie Johnson, the perpetual bridesmaid who has specialized in watching titles slip just out of his grasp; Matt Kenseth, the quiet former champion; Kevin Harvick, the brash driver in search of rewriting NASCAR history; Denny Hamlin, the rookie nobody expected to be this far this fast; and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the fan favorite searching to keep a family tradition alive. Now all that is left is 400 short miles, just 267 laps to decide who will etch their name in the NASCAR history books.
So for the last time this season… let’s find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Chase.
Johnson: After the first few Chase races, not many would have bet that Johnson would even have a shot at the title come Homestead, let alone hold a 63-point lead before the race even starts. But thanks to five straight finishes of second or better, Johnson finds himself needing to only finish 12th in the final race of the year to take home the trophy; that number drops to 13th if he leads at least one lap. Johnson has been close to winning the championship the last two years in the Chase only to see the trophy fall out of his grasp, including a vicious crash at Homestead in 2005 that cost him any shot at catching Tony Stewart. Still, Johnson has three top 10s in five career Homestead starts; getting number four would earn him the biggest prize of all.
Harvick: Harvick entered Sunday’s race over 100 points out of the lead in the Chase, knowing that his best chance of having at least an outside shot at the title was to win at Phoenix. Mission accomplished. Harvick dominated the race, leading 252 laps on the way to his fifth victory of the season that puts him 90 behind Johnson with one race to go. He heads into the final week with top 10s in three of the last five races and the best average finish at Homestead among the drivers in the Chase: 9.4. That number is built on four top 10s in the five races he’s run there, but he’ll need more than that, as well as a little help from Johnson if he wants to make history and claim both the Busch and Cup titles in the same year.
Earnhardt Jr.: Junior is another driver that has performed well lately, but the opportunity to capitalize on it might have come too little, too late. His car didn’t run well in the early stages of the race on Sunday, but he overcame adversity to finish the day in ninth, scoring his fourth top 10 in the last five races. Sitting 115 points behind Johnson, Junior Nation will have to pray for something bad to happen to the No. 48 early, but they also need a reversal of fortune for themselves. Junior hasn’t finished in the top 10 at Homestead during his eight year Cup career; but as long as the No. 8 has a spot in the field come Sunday, all hope is never lost.
Hamlin: Who would have thought at the start of the season that Hamlin would not only be Joe Gibbs Racing’s lone entry into the Chase this year, but that he would still have an outside shot at the title going into Homestead? With four straight top 10s, including a third-place finish at Phoenix, Hamlin sits 90 points behind the leader and tied with Harvick for third place. With only one race at Homestead under his belt, a 33rd-place finish last year, Hamlin may be at a disadvantage. But given the fact that nobody thought a rookie would be in this position this late in the season, you have to believe the pressure is off the young Virginian; he can just go out there and race hard, letting the chips fall where they may.
Kenseth: The points show that Kenseth has the best chance of crushing Johnson’s title hopes this weekend, but his recent results make that 63-point gap seem more like 103. With only one top 10 in the last five races, the No. 17 team admits that the performance hasn’t been there down the stretch; at Phoenix, Kenseth said he’s not too optimistic about his chances given the way the team has run as of late. With only one top-10 finish at Homestead, his shot at title number two seems to dwindle even more.
Jeff Gordon: Gordon has put together his best streak of top-10 finishes this season in the last four races, but all of that comes just a little bit too late. Despite finishing fourth at Phoenix, Gordon was 11 points shy of still having a snowball’s chance in the desert of winning the championship at Homestead. As it is, he’s mathematically out of the running for the title, leaving his biggest mission in the final race of the year to cross Homestead off the list of tracks he’s yet to win at.
THE REST OF THE PACK
The remaining four drivers in the Chase are a mere footnote now as all eyes will be firmly affixed on the five drivers gunning for the title at Homestead. Four short weeks ago, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone who didn’t think Jeff Burton would have a shot at the title in the final race. But a blown engine at Martinsville combined with a blown right front at Texas ended his chances, lumping him in the category of “other drivers in the Chase” with Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch.
THE RACE FOR 11TH
It’s official: Frontstretch calls 11th place for Stewart. There’s no big surprise in that… Smoke has been burning up the competition in the Chase with three wins in the last eight races. Carl Edwards did put up a bit of a fight, taking over 12th from teammate Greg Biffle during this final stretch, but heading into Homestead he is 323 markers behind Stewart with no chance to catch him.
As we approach the final race of the season, there are still plenty of questions to be answered. Can Johnson pull off the improbable, or has he used up all his good luck to get to this point? Will one of the other four drivers be in a position to capitalize if Johnson should falter? Can Kenseth pull a rabbit, and a decent running car, out of his hat? Or will a driver outside the top five steal the limelight? We’ll just have to wait until the checkered flag falls in Miami to see who was the hottest of them all in the 2006 season.