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The decade in motorsports

1. Jimmie Johnson: Since entering the Cup series in 2002, Johnson has dominated NASCAR like no other driver in history. He's won more races than any other Cup driver this decade (47), and this year he became the first driver to win four straight championships.

2. Tony Stewart: Stewart has two championships this decade (2002 and 2005) and this year became the first driver-owner to win a points-paying Cup race since Ricky Rudd in 1998.

3. Michael Schumacher: The retired Formula One star won a record seven world championships -- five this decade -- and has more wins in the last 10 years (46) than any other driver in the series.

4. Jeff Gordon: While only one of Gordon's four Sprint Cup championships was won this decade (2001), he's taken more checkered flags since 2000 (33) than any driver except Johnson.

5. Matt Kenseth: The quiet man from Cambridge, Wis., has been as consistent as any other driver since entering the Cup series in 2001. He won the 2003 Cup and his 172 top-10 finishes this decade trails only Gordon and Johnson.

6. Sam Hornish Jr.: Forget Hornish's struggles in NASCAR; he was IndyCar's top driver this decade, winning three series championships (2001, 2002 and 2006) and the 2006 Indy 500.

7. Kurt Busch: Aggressive and combative, Busch won the inaugural Chase in 2004 and since then has been a regular playoff participant, qualifying for NASCAR's second season in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009.

8. Helio Castroneves: Since entering IndyCar in 2001, Castroneves has been the man to beat in the Indy 500. The former Dancing With the Stars winner has taken the checkered flag in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing three times, the most among active drivers.

9. Kyle Busch: Of the many eye-popping statisticsBusch has accumulated since making his Cup debut in 2004, this is the most impressive: In 2008, Busch drove to Victory Lane a record 21 times in NASCAR's three national series.

10. Mark Martin: Martin has twice finished runner-up in the final Cup standings this decade (2002 and 2009) and continues to show that, at 50, he's as fast as he was at 30.

BEST DAYTONA 500: 2004Exactly three years after his father was killed at Daytona in a last lap crash, Dale Earnhardt Jr.won the Great American Race, prompting an unmatched outburst of emotion from the red-clad Earnhardt fans in the Daytona grandstands.

BEST INDIANAPOLIS 500: 2006Hornish Jr., a native of nearby Defiance, Ohio, passed Marco Andretti on the last lap to win by .0635 of a second -- a little more than a car length. It was the second closest finish in the storied history of Indy.

BEST F-1 RACE: Hamilton's title-winning race; Nov. 2, 2008In the season's final race (the Brazilian GP in Sao Paulo), England's Lewis Hamilton needed to finish fifth or better to win the championship. Heading into the final turn of the season, Hamilton was in sixth place, but he brazenly passedTimo Glock within sight of the finish line. Hamilton won the world title by a single point over Brazil's Felipe Massa.

BEST RACE: The Ford 400 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway; Nov. 21, 2004Entering the race, five drivers were within 82 points of leader Kurt Busch in the championship standings. Despite having a wheel come off, Busch held on to beat Johnson by eight points in the final tally -- the closest finish in Chase history.

BIGGEST UPSET: David Gilliand's Kentucky Speedway victory; June 17, 2006It never happens. At least it hadn't in this decade until June 2006, when Gilliland, driving an unsponsored car in his seventh career start in the Nationwide Series, took the checkered flag at Kentucky Speedway, beating a handful of Cup regulars in fully funded cars (read: sponsorships with upwards of $20 million). It was the only time in the last 10 years that an unsponsored car won a race in either of NASCAR's two highest series.

BIGGEST OVERACHIEVER: Steve LetarteAt age 16, Letarte started sweeping floors at Hendrick Motorsports. A decade later, with thorough persistence and a work ethic for the ages, he rose through the ranks and was named Gordon's crew chief. His is literally a broom-to-riches story.

BIGGEST UNDERACHIEVER: Kyle BuschBusch has won 14 Cup races in the last four years, so it's hard to call him an underachiever. Still, no other driver in the sport has been as consistently disappointing in the Chase as the freakishly talented Busch, who has never finished higher than fifth in the 10-race playoff.

BIGGEST CONTROVERSY: The Talladega questionThe track has become a ticking time bomb. The big wrecks that are commonplace on the 2.66-mile tri-oval in Alabama are growing progressively worse: Carl Edwardsnearly flew into the grandstands last spring and Ryan Newman was lucky to walk away this fall after flipping upside-down. NASCAR clearly needs to do something to make sure the cars don't become airborne on the circuit's longest track. Paging all engineers!

BEST FEUD: Tony Stewart and Kurt BuschWhile it bubbles to the surface only every so often, the animosity between Stewart and Busch is deep-seated. These big personalities frequently spar -- both verbally and on the track. They certainly don't feud like Donnie Allison and Cale Yarboroughat Daytona in 1979, but word in the garage is that Stewart punched Busch after a practice session in the days before the 2008 Daytona 500.

UNDER-THE-RADAR STORY: Kyle PettyNo figure in NASCAR has a bigger heart than Petty, who is now a parttime driver in the Cup series. Back in 2000, Petty's 19-year-old son, Adam, was killed during a practice session at New Hampshire International Speedway. To honor Adam, who loved working with disabled children, Petty started the Victory Junction Gang for terminally and chronically ill children. Located in Randleman, N.C., Victory Junction is a NASCAR-themed camp that opened in 2004 and has hosted more than 10,000 children. They have enjoyed visiting the Jimmie Johnson Victory Lanes (a bowling alley) and Jessie's Horse Power Garage (stables and riding area).

ONE-HIT WONDER: Jamie McMurrayAlthough McMurray has been driving superior equipment for the last eight years at Chip Ganassi Racing and at Roush-Fenway Racing, he has a grand total of three career wins in the Cup series. Considering that two of his wins took place on restrictor-plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega), where luck is more important than skill, some in the garage feel that he really is just a one-hit wonder.

WORST MELTDOWN: Tony Stewart, 2002Racing in his home state of Indiana, Stewart punched a photographer in the chest after he got too close to the driver, who had just finished 12th in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The punch cemented Stewart's status as NASCAR's resident Bad Boy.

MOST INSPIRATIONAL STORY: Hendrick MotorsportsIt was one of the darkest days of the decade in American motorsports: On Oct. 27, 2004, a plane owned by Hendrick Motorsports crashed en route to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, killing all 10 passengers on board, including Rick Hendrick's son (Rickey), his brother (John), two of his nieces (Kimberly and Jennifer Hendrick), and his best friend and chief engine builder (Randy Dorton). Since that day, Hendrick and his organization have thoroughly dominated the sport, winning four of six championships. You want inspiration? Look at how Hendrick has carried on.

BIGGEST VILLAIN: Kyle BuschWhen Kyle Busch was introduced before his first Busch Series race in Charlotte in 2003, he was greeted with a thunderclap of boos. In other words, Kurt Busch's kid brother never had a chance to win over NASCAR fans -- and that's exactly how he wants it. Why? Because he positively relishes playing the role of NASCAR's dark knight.

UNSUNG HERO:Ron MalecWant to know who's been Johnson's secret weapon during his four-year title run? Meet Malec, Johnson's car chief and one of his closest friends. Alhough Malec has been offered crew chief positions with other teams, he's remained loyal to Johnson -- and been a key behind-the-scenes player for the No. 48 team.

MOST COLORFUL PERSONALITY: Tony StewartIt's safe to say that Stewart is the only driver this decade who's owned a pet monkey, a pair of Tonkinese cats, a 365-pound half Siberian half Bengal Tiger, more than 50 cars, his own race track and his own Cup team.

BEST INNOVATION: Head-and-neck restraining devices (HANS)Eight months after Dale Earnhardt Sr. died of a head-whip injury in the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR mandated that all drivers wear a head-and-neck restraining device (HANS), which Earnhardt was not using. Since then, there have been no fatalities in the sport.

WORST INNOVATION: The Lucky Dog ruleThe rule allows the lead driver, who is a lap down, his lap back when the caution flag waves. The rule has made it possible to win races after being several laps down, which is a slap to the integrity of the sport. This rule, which was adopted in 2003, needs to go the way of the open-faced driver's helmet.

BEST TRASH TALKER: Tony StewartNo one can verbally undress a rival driver like Stewart, who in the past has likened Edwards to Eddie Haskell and compared Kyle Busch's reckless driving style to that of a "dart with no feathers."

BIGGEST NEAR-MISS: Jimmie Johnson in 2004Here's a scary thought: Johnson could easily be sitting on five championships right now. In 2004, he narrowly lost the title to Kurt Busch, who, despite having a tire fall off in the season finale at Homestead, beat Johnson by eight points.

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