1. Going old-school
Definitely the old-school nature of Matt Kenseth punting Joey Logano at Martinsville in 2015. Logano had spun Kenseth from a certain victory earlier in the playoffs at Kansas after winning the previous week at Charlotte. Of course, that was seen as rubbing salt in the wound at the time, since there wasn’t really a precedent for how to advance round-by-round yet. There was also the angle of Logano’s tendency to wreck JGR drivers, and of course, Kenseth was driving Logano’s old car. The roar of the fans following that crash was audible even on TV, so I can’t imagine how that must have played out at the track. – Wesley Coburn
2. Don’t ever count him out
I still remember watching the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2016 and thinking, “There’s no way Jimmie Johnson wins this.”
Yes, I should have known better. Johnson won his way through the second and third rounds of the playoffs just to get a chance at winning title number seven. But outside of a few early season races, he had not contended for many wins in 2016. He wasn’t reeling off top 10s like the No. 48 team had been so accustomed to doing, and here at Homestead, he was hanging around 10th place for most of the evening. Surely there would be no championship for Johnson this time. This was finally Carl Edwards’ year.
Then NASCAR threw a caution for Dylan Lupton scraping the wall. Why Lupton’s incident warranted a caution was never really clear. But it set the field up for a late-race restart, and when Edwards and Logano made contact, Edwards wound up the fence, along with a lot of other drivers.
But not Johnson.
At that point, I should have known what was coming. But when the race went green again, Logano came flying through the pack on new tires. Then Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun and brought out another caution. Logano would be right on Johnson’s tail for the restart. At that moment I would have bet the farm that the No. 22 team had the title in hand.
Then Johnson nailed the most important restart of his career. He drove away from everyone. He won a seventh championship. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen (even though I should have).
When I think about the playoffs, I think about Jimmie Johnson stepping up year after year and finding ways to win championships. As unbelievable as it was to see him win five in a row, his refusal to be beaten at Homestead in 2016 has been etched into my brain forever. His clutch performances show what an amazing athlete he is. And as much as the current championship system irritates me, I don’t hold that against Johnson. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
The 2018 season has been a horrible one for Johnson, by his standards. He could get eliminated from the playoffs this week. But I’m not counting him out. I’ve made that mistake before. – Bryan Gable
3. Big, bad Talladega
Both of my favorite moments in the playoffs came at Talladega in October. The atmosphere at Talladega during the playoffs has just been phenomenal and one of my personal favorite races of the year.
2014 – Brad Keselowski comes up with a clutch victory
I was in the grandstands during this race and remember the mood in the stands. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was basically out which brought his fans to cheer for Keselowski. During that final lap, the ruffling for every spot possible was insane, and somehow they didn’t wreck on that final lap.
2017 – Keselowski Survives Wild Talladega
I remember wondering what would happen if Gray Gaulding picked up his first victory ever after the majority of the regular contenders had wrecked out. It seemed as if there was constant crashing for a good while the entire race and darkness was quickly enveloping the speedway. But Keselowski survived the carnage and the dwindling daylight to score his third 2017 victory. – Christian Koelle
4. The one that (almost) got away
The one that stood out to me the most was the first playoff finale in 2004. Kurt Busch led Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Busch just needed a good day, Johnson would be the champ if he finished higher than Gordon and Busch had a problem, and Gordon had to win. I remember I was in fourth grade, very upset over the playoff existing at all because Gordon would’ve been the champion in the old system (I checked the standings every week).
Then Busch comes on the radio saying he has a right front problem, he pulls towards pit road and *pop* his tire flies off, onto the track and he barely misses the pit wall. He was over the commitment lane when the caution came out. At that moment I knew that he had the mojo to win the championship.
Busch did what he needed to do and finished fifth, Johnson finished second, Gordon third. Even though I was upset that Gordon wouldn’t get his fifth title via the old system, we as fans knew that the Chase was a good idea and that this was the most exciting Ford 400 at Miami to date (in 2004). – Drew Mongiello
5. A title run for the ages
If you’re a fan of the playoff system, is there really a more exciting championship battle than 2011? Tony Stewart had zero wins on the season and started the championship battle in ninth, looking far from championship form. Then he kicked off the Chase with a win. And another. All told, Stewart won five times in the 10-race span and that was enough to seal the deal on a tiebreaker. That’s right, Stewart and Carl Edwards finished at Homestead tied for the championship, but Stewart’s wins were more than enough. He entered the final race with only one chance at winning the title. He had to win the race, or Edwards would edge him on points. I’ll never agree with the playoff format, but Stewart’s third title was the definition of a clutch performance. –Amy Henderson