Tom Bowles
Thursday November 19th, 2009

Jimmie Johnson has won the right to a fourth straight title thanks to his four wins and eight top-10s in nine Chase races. The 11 drivers who came up short will all go into the offseason wondering privately where it all went wrong while publicly congratulating the No. 48 team. After all, the sport's top dozen controlled their own destiny in a championship quest that ultimately fizzled for all but one; in the end, there's no one to blame but themselves.

So as the season winds down, here's the turning point for each of the other Chasers (sans Johnson), moments that left their rival with a clear path to the title:

Race He Wants Back: Talladega. For 186 of 188 laps, Martin avoided disaster at the track he calls the "lotto" due to the unpredictability of restrictor plate racing. But when a top-10 finish seemed all but assured, the bad luck that's bitten NASCAR's Charlie Brown so many times through the years struck again. As 2010 teammates Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch made contact, the second "Big One" of the day broke out, heading to the white flag lap. With nowhere to go, Martin got tagged in the right rear and started flipping over while Johnson scooted by a few car lengths ahead. When the smoke cleared, Martin wound up 28th compared to Johnson's 6th -- a 66-point difference that would have turned Homestead into a neck-and-neck battle instead of a likely JJ coronation.

Race He Wants Back: New Hampshire. The first race of the playoffs was a microcosm of Gordon's Chase. Strong early on, the No. 24 car lost the handle midway through and started dropping like a rock as crew chief Steve Letarte adjusted the wrong way to changing track conditions. Fading from 5th to 15th, Gordon immediately fell 102 points behind then-leader Martin and left himself with too much of a deficit to overcome.

"When you get in a hole like this," he said at the time, "It puts that much more pressure on you that you have to win."

The poor start took its toll as Gordon needed late-race pit strategy just to salvage a handful of solid finishes. He could finish as high as second in points, but that's small consolation to a four-time champ who's not even the best in his own organization.

Race He Wants Back: Talladega. After being involved in several scrapes that left his Miller Lite Dodge battered, Busch had miraculously climbed back to the top-10 with two laps left. That's when an ill-timed bumpdraft from Brad Keselowski left him in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"I'm kicking myself for what happened to us at Talladega," he said after winning at Texas the following week. "Running sixth place with a lap and a half to go, I put the car on the hauler at 30th. I didn't do my job." The 77-point difference would have left him on the fringes of title contention heading to Homestead, exceeding expectations in a surprising Chase for a driver losing crew chief Pat Tryson after the season.

Race He Wants Back: Fontana. After winning at Kansas one week prior, the regular-season points champ had a shot to put pressure on the No. 48. Instead, he finished fourth-best among the Hendrick-supported cars in a head-to-head matchup that demonstrated SHR is still a step behind in its chassis and engine suppliers. A speeding penalty was the ultimate culprit, as it forced an extra trip down pit road that had Stewart fighting from a lap down at one point. Sure, he made it back to fifth place, but it zapped his momentum to the point the No. 14 hasn't visited the top-five since.

"It was making chicken salad out of chicken you know what," he said afterwards, a phrase that has applied to his Chase ever since.

Race He Wants Back: Charlotte. This year's Chase Cinderella racked up more top-fives than anyone else in the first four races of the Chase. But glass slippers are fragile at best, and Montoya's broke on the back bumper of Martin during an awkward restart midway through Charlotte's 500-miler. For the first time in the Chase, the Colombian let his emotions get the better of him, eventually spinning out with a car that had neither the speed nor the aerodynamics to stay competitive. "If you're expecting to have 10 clean races, then you're dreaming," he said afterwards. But when two of the next three races were filled with just as many problems, his title dreams were flushed down the toilet.

Race He Wants Back: Fontana. Looked at as a championship sleeper, Hamlin stayed on the fringes of contention through the first three races before making some noise in the fourth. A top-five contender all day at Fontana, he took the lead after a crucial round of pit stops and looked to run away from the field. But on the ensuing restart, Hamlin tried to jump in front of Montoya and ended up headed straight to the inside wall. "I made a rookie mistake," he said after plummeting to 37th, and he's shown the inconsistency of a freshman ever since. Three top-fives combined with two more DNFs led to a self-proclaimed new nickname: "The King of Mediocrity."

Race He Wants Back: Kansas. With two straight top-10s to open up the Chase, Newman looked like he could be a sleeper to challenge Johnson. But the team's Achilles' heel came back to bite it the following week at Kansas: pit road. After a dismal qualifying effort (30th), the No. 39 team had a series of terrible stops that put it an extra lap down and out of contention. The team has looked out of step ever since, and has extended its streak without a top-five finish to a season-high 21 races entering Homestead.

Race He Wants Back: Dover. With Roush Fenway struggling, Biffle knew he was behind the eight ball from the start. But after a solid performance at New Hampshire, Biffle spent too much time whining and not enough time performing at the Dover track, where Johnson had a tire test that August.

"What's probably most frustrating about the whole thing, and I hate to beat a dead horse, is that the 42 and the 48 and I don't know who else came up here and tire tested," he said after running 13th. "And when we came back, look at the guys that didn't tire test, we ran terrible."

Many others also criticized the system, but crying over milk already spilled did nothing to establish the chemistry in the No. 16 team. While Biffle finished third at Kansas the following week, the team was never able to sustain any serious momentum against their Hendrick rivals.

What He Wants Back: A functioning race team. As the Chase approached, RPM's number one driver was hit with a bombshell announcement: his race team was merging with Yates and switching to Ford in 2010. That's the same manufacturer who sued Kahne over his initial move to Dodge in 2004, leading to an out-of-court settlement and hurt feelings that may or may not have healed. With 150 layoffs added to the drama and a teammate's switch to Fusions during the season, the No. 9 car had chaos surrounding it at every turn. That the No. 9 won a race and has a shot at the top-10 in points is nothing short of miraculous.

Race He Wants Back: Dover. Edwards finished third in Delaware last year, leading 85 laps en route to establishing himself as a true title contender. With his seventh place finish in June, this track was where the No. 99 was hoping to jumpstart its sputtering season. Instead, it was no better than a 15th or 20th place car, and Edwards watched Johnson run circles around him en route to an 11th place finish. It started a troubling trend: at the drop of the green, the team falls so far off the pace that by the time it dials the car in mid-race, it has lost the track position necessary to contend.

Race He Wants Back: All of them. Team Red Bull should be commended for making its first ever Chase in its third year of existence. But while most teams spent the year prepping for the playoffs, Vickers and Co. simply were trying to make them. There's a critical difference, as a summer's worth of experimentation paid off for Johnson, Martin, Gordon and Co. while TRB spent most of the playoffs caught with its pants down. When other teams stepped up their games, this team was already giving 110 percent ... and that's what's left it eating dust with the lowest point total in Chase history.

Despite the embarrassment, it's been a positive experience for TRB as it looks to take the next step towards championship contention in 2010. For TRB, just like with others, there's always next year to look forward to.

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