The basic premise of this article asks the readers to do one thing: Please put your opinions of the Chase aside for the next few minutes.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup racing season is the longest of any sport outside of golf, although the guys who chase the little white balls around those fields don’t compete in all of the events. What started February 6th with NASCAR’s equivalent of the preseason is going to wrap up in Homestead, Fla., this weekend with the closest points race in six years. The top-three drivers in the Chase are separated by 46 points and the possibilities for suspense-filled drama throughout all 267 laps of the final race of the season are endless.
Denny Hamlin is 15 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, who is trailing at this point in the season for the first time in five years. Johnson was leading coming into the last four season finales and merely had to hold station to secure his titles. The previous two years, Johnson was in second place, 52 back in 2005 and 18 points behind in 2004, and failed to get the job done, with Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch holding on to win both of those championships.
The close proximity of the top three this year affords us the opportunity to see something happen which has not occurred since 1992 in the Cup Series. No one since Alan Kulwicki has trailed in the championship standings entering the final race only to rally and win the title.
Prior to this season, the first points race under the Chase format was the closest, with Johnson following Busch into the final race just 18 points behind — and just three points ahead of Jeff Gordon, who sat 21 points out when the green flag dropped at Homestead. Prior to 2004, the only points race in this century that came down to the last race of the season was 2002, when Stewart led Mark Martin into the final race by a mere 89 points. While Martin put up a valiant fight in that last race, Stewart was able to take the title by 38 markers.
In the 1990s, there were four points races that truly came down to the final race. Dale Earnhardt did lead Rusty Wallace by 126 points coming into the final stop of 1993, but that really was not much of a race since a driver could only gain 151 points in a race at the time. The remaining four races were double-digit leads that certainly allowed for some trepidation for the leader over the course of the final race of the season. 1997 saw Gordon come into the final race leading Dale Jarrett by 77 points and Martin by 87. Jarrett and Martin put up a valiant fight, crossing the finish line second and third, while Gordon nursed his ride home in 17th, three laps down. The final tally saw Gordon take the title by a slim 14 points over Jarrett.
A year earlier, Gordon was on the other side of the ledger when he chased Terry Labonte into the final race 47 points out of the top spot. Gordon put forth a strong effort to come home third in that final race, but Labonte was close behind in fifth and won the title by 37 points.
1990 saw the closest points race in years coming into the final race when Earnhardt led Martin by a scant six points when the green waved on the season fianle. Earnhardt came home third and led 42 laps while Martin was unable to lead a lap and came home sixth, losing the title by 26 points.
All of those races still pale in comparison to the 1992 battle for the title which is still regarded as the greatest final race of the season in NASCAR’s modern era. Entering the Hooters 500 at Atlanta, there were no less than five drivers within 100 points of the top spot in the standings. Davey Allison led Kulwicki by 30 points, with Bill Elliott 40 back, Harry Gant 97 back and Kyle Petty 98 in arrears. As most everyone remembers, Allison had trouble early and Petty and Gant were never really factors, so it all came down to Elliott and Kulwicki.
Elliott did all he could in winning the race, but Kulwicki led the most laps — one more than Elliott — and finished in second so that he scored the same number of points as Awesome Bill, to win the title by 10 points. Had Kulwicki not led one more lap than Elliott, and Elliott been able to lead that lap, he would have won the championship via most-season-wins tie breaker.
This year’s title race certainly has the potential to offer nearly as many plot twists as the 1992 battle. If Johnson leads the most laps and wins the race, the title is his. However, if Johnson wins and Hamlin leads the most laps and follows him across the line in second place, they’ll be tied, handing Hamlin the title by virtue of the most-wins tie breaker. If Harvick can win the race without leading the most laps, Johnson finishes 16th and Hamlin finishes 21st, there will be a three-way tie for the top spot and Hamlin would still win. However, if Harvick led the most laps or either of the other drivers slipped back one more spot, then Harvick wins it all.
There is no doubt that there will be constant updates throughout the race on Sunday of where the points stand and what the drivers need to do. They’ll have their eyes trained on each other and most certainly will have an impact on the strategies employed by the teams that are battling it out for the title. One thing is for sure, the pressure and tension will be palpable on Sunday, and hopefully the end result will live up to the hype.