AVONDALE, Ariz. -- It may have taken six years but NASCAR finally has The Chase it really wanted -- and desperately needs.
Denny Hamlin leads four-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson by just 15 points entering Sunday's final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the smallest margin entering the finale since the Chase format was implemented in 2004. That year, Kurt Busch led Johnson by 18 points heading to Homestead.
While the Chase has often been criticized as a contrived system to determine the Cup series championship, NASCAR is about to reap the rewards of a close battle that pits the three best drivers of 2010 in a head-to-head battle. (Kevin Harvick sits 46 points behind Hamlin and 31 behind Johnson.)
Hamlin's margin over Johnson is so slim that the only way he can guarantee his first Sprint Cup championship is by either finishing second while leading the most laps or by winning. And if that storyline isn't engaging enough, Hamlin is also attempting to end Johnson's record streak of four consecutive titles. If regular season points leader Harvick can surge back and win the title, he would give team owner Richard Childress his first Cup title since the late Dale Earnhardt in 1994.
NASCAR is hoping the three-driver battle will make Sunday's race a hot ticket and rejuvenate interest among sponsors and those fans were thought the series was getting blasé with Johnson winning each year.
"I hope that the switch has been turned on for the last few weeks because it's been a great Chase," said Kurt Busch. "The more guys that are in it, that's what creates this excitement and the element of the unknown. Keeping up with one guy or two guys, three guys, it's just exciting .... Any year that we saw a breakaway guy, you'd have one or two guys -- Dale Sr. [Earnhardt] or Rusty Wallace or you'd have Jeff Gordon against somebody that was right there close. This has the makings of '04 and '04 had the makings of what it was in 1992 [when Alan Kulwicki came from behind to win the title]. It's what everybody likes to see, a great points battle all the way to the end, and it's just not the final race, it's the weeks leading up and how they've handled the pressure for the weeks leading up."
After 2004's five-driver battle for the title, the Chase never seemed to reach the same level of competitiveness and excitement. That year, Busch entered the race in the lead but Johnson had won four times in the five previous races, putting him in position to claim his first championship. Johnson's teammate Jeff Gordon was third, trailing Busch by 21, while fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was fourth, 72 out of the lead. Mark Martin was the fifth driver who could still win the championship, but would have needed an unlikely streak of bad luck to befall the four drivers in front of him.
That nearly happened to Busch when he lost a wheel off his Ford and nearly hit pit wall midway through the race. Luckily, he got the car into the pits and replaced the wheel. While that took him out of contention for the race victory, Busch's fifth-place finish allowed him to defeat Johnson by eight points and Gordon by 16 for the closest title margin in NASCAR history.
NASCAR officials thought it had struck gold with the new format and that close championship finishes would happen every year. They were sadly mistaken. Tony Stewart limped his way to the 2005 title after Johnson crashed out of the final race of the season. Starting in 2006, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus found a formula that locked in the sport's next four championships.
Johnson's championship dominance prompted some to call for changes to the playoff format, but this year's Chase has certainly benefited from keeping the format as is.
"I think the battle we've got on the top of the point standings is really good for the sport and I think there are going to be some really happy people and some really, really not happy people at Homestead," predicted driver Carl Edwards, who is all but assured of finishing fourth in the standings. "Without any personal favoritism in any way, I still feel that Jimmie Johnson is the guy to beat. He's been through this kind of pressure a number of times and been able to perform, so I still think he's the guy to beat. But with everything that can happen in a 400-mile race at Homestead, it's going to be an amazing race."
Edwards' team owner, Jack Roush, also expects the sport to benefit greatly from a close championship race.
"I think that the Chase and Brian France's Chase has been really good for the sport," Roush said. "We've been in the final hunt. We haven't won since the Chase started, but we've been up there and fought for it on numerous occasions. I think this year will be remembered as a very good year. At this point, we're not there, but we'll try to be there next year. But I think the changes that they've made on the Chase are good and I know they're looking at some other things that might even heighten the excitement even more."
By letting the Chase finally work on its own, perhaps NASCAR should leave it alone for a while and let it play itself out. Forcing changes to make the final race of the season a "winner-take-all" scenario, for instance, only cheapens the value of all the other races on the schedule.
At least for this year, NASCAR finally has a Chase worth talking about.
If Jimmie Johnson's Drive for Five is successful, a come-from-behind, last-race of the season title would elevate the Hendrick Motorsports star as the greatest driver of his era, if not of all time.
"It would probably be received better than the ones in the past, with the runaway show we've had on a couple of them," Johnson said. "I don't care how I win it. However we win it, that's cool. I would love to come back and win from behind and eliminate that stat because that seems to be the only thing that everyone talks about right now.
"When I look at the way we started the Chase, I'm more frustrated at what we did then, in the fact we didn't capitalize at Loudon. Last week we missed a pit call late in the race. Everybody behind us had tires on. We ended up ninth. When you go back through the season, look at little things, we've left points on the table. That's unlike us from years past. That's the part we're fighting right now."
Being second in points, Johnson will have to enter Homestead with a completely different strategy than what he used in his past four championships.
"We're very aware of that situation, as well," Johnson admitted. "We're doing everything we can. We're trying as hard as we can. We're going to go home and we're going to make sure we have the best engines, go through our simulation stuff, make sure our car is as fast as it can be and then race. I wish we had more speed. We were looking like we had in years past. Last couple weeks we've been good and they've been great. We need to get that turned around and be great.
"If not, I know that with Chad [Knaus] on the box, we're going to work on a strategy and hopefully find an upper hand somewhere, somehow. He did that today. The first goal is to have enough speed to run away from them, not worry about it. If not, you have to back up and punt and figure out what to do from there."
Johnson and his No. 48 team at Hendrick Motorsports have been tested by the pressures of the Chase. For Hamlin, this is a new experience and the look on his face after Phoenix told the whole story of how the pressure of the Chase has affected him.
As for Johnson, this is all part of what it takes to win a championship.
"I didn't get a good look at him but the nine years being in Cup, I've lived in championship pressure, especially the last four years," Johnson said. "I know how bad he wants to win a championship. I remember my first. So I don't disrespect his anger. I don't disrespect where he's coming from because I understand. He wants to win this championship bad. He's dedicated his life to it.
"I also know that this week is going to be a tough week for him because I've been there. I hope he can't handle it as well as I did in '06. I want it to work out for me. Selfishly for me, I want him to not do the right things. We'll just see how the week works out. Denny didn't go out of his way to say hi on the way out so I could imagine that he wasn't in a good mood."
"People are wound up. Fortunately, they all seem to be fans of mine, but everybody is really excited. I had never really considered doing that until that gate was open at Texas -- the hole in the fence there at Texas was right in front of me, so I thought, 'Well, we'll see how this goes.' The wrestler, John Cena, he was at a Gillette commercial shoot with us a few years ago and he did that. There were some fans there and they just couldn't believe he did it, so that's kind of what sparked the idea. Those two times I've done that, I'll never forget those. It's really neat to go up there. I would highly recommend it to anybody. It feels really neat."
The end of the Chase for the Championship road finally comes at Homestead-Miami. And unlike past years when all Jimmie Johnson had to do was stay out of trouble, the three drivers left in contention will have to race hard to win the championship. It should be quite a show.