FORT WORTH, Texas -- As NASCAR's Chase for the Championship enters its final stretch with two races remaining, it is shaping up to be one of the better finishes since the Chase's debut in 2004. That year, five drivers were in contention for the title in the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with Kurt Busch prevailing.
While that was the best of the Chase era, it was not the best stretch drive in NASCAR Cup history. That honor goes to the dramatic 1992 championship, when Alan Kulwicki defied the odds and won the title at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Since then, however, impressive stretch drives and dramatic comebacks have been rare. That is why this year's Chase shouldn't be taken for granted.
Let's take a look at some of the great comebacks and stretch drives in NASCAR history.
Alan Kulwicki was an independent owner/driver who had come south from Milwaukee after a successful career in the American Speed Association. A sizeable 278 points behind with six races remaining, Kulwicki declared he was "out of it" after the September race at Dover.
Despite that proclamation, Kulwicki began an impressive comeback, making up an average of 42 points a race to defeat Bill Elliott in the closest finish in NASCAR Cup history. The late Davey Allison was also a contender for the title heading into the final race of the season, aided by a collapse from Elliott, who finished 26th or worse in four of the final five races. That put Allison in the lead by 30 over Kulwicki entering the final race, but after Allison crashed with Ernie Irvan late in the finale, that opened the door for Elliott and Kulwicki.
Elliott won the race and Kulwicki finished second, but by leading one more lap than Elliott, he claimed five bonus points. Had Elliott led the most laps, the championship would have ended in a tie with Elliott claiming the crown with most wins. Instead, Kulwicki won the title by 10 points.
"I remember that I was glued to the TV," recalled 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch. "It was a Ford year that year, watching Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki and Bill Elliott going to Atlanta to duke it out. The way that those three had a shot at the championship is, in a sense, what our Chase format is. If '92 is considered the best year ever and here we are in the Chase era, why can't the Chase be accepted? That's what I'm still trying to figure out. We want to have as many guys eligible for the championship going to that last race at Homestead."
This is easily the No. 1 comeback and dramatic finish to any NASCAR season, a true David and Goliath story.
"To me, that was great that he did that -- we were all pulling for Alan to do that," said former driver and 1989 Cup champion Rusty Wallace.
Sadly, Kulwicki's time as a champion was short. He would die in a private plane crash in Blountville, Tenn., on April 1, 1993, en route to Bristol Motor Speedway.
This was the season Elliott became "Million Dollar Bill" by winning three of the sport's Big Four races -- the Daytona 500, Winston 500 at Talladega and the Southern 500. The only leg of the Big Four he did not win was the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.
The million-dollar victory was huge in 1985 and helped elevate NASCAR into the mainstream media. Even as the last of the confetti was landing on Elliott's Ford Thunderbird in Darlington's Victory Lane after the Southern 500, it appeared nothing was going to keep the driver from Dawsonville, Ga., from winning the championship.
Darrell Waltrip thought otherwise.
Waltrip was 206 points behind with eight races remaining, but would use all of team owner Junior Johnson's horsepower -- and Waltrip's cunning psychological warfare -- to erase the deficit and win the title by 101 points over Elliott. Waltrip drove to victory at Richmond and finished second at Dover and Martinsville to cut Elliott's lead by 23 points. He took the lead from Elliott at Charlotte when he finished 14th and Elliott was 30th, giving Waltrip a 30-point edge. Elliott rallied back in the final three races, as each driver won one race and finished in the top four in those contests to give Waltrip a 20-point lead entering the final race. But the dramatic conclusion to the season fizzled when Elliott's Ford had transmission problems and finished 31st while Waltrip's seventh-place finish was enough for his third -- and final -- Cup championship.
The reason this is rated so high is how Elliott could dominate on superspeedways -- winning 11 out of 28 races -- but falter on short tracks. His inability to win one race on the short tracks kept him from winning the title.
DW gets another high entry on my list because of his heated battle with Bobby Allison. Waltrip had moved over to Junior Johnson's NASCAR team while Allison had replaced Waltrip at DiGard Racing. Allison continued to harbor resentment at the legendary Johnson from the days that he raced for that team.
In 1981, Waltrip was 341 points behind Allison after running at Texas World Speedway in College Station, the 14th of a 31-race season. He bounced back in an 11-race run in which he overtook Allison. During that span, Waltrip had four wins, nine top-3 finishes and was never outside the top-10. He took a two-point lead over Allison at Dover with six races remaining and then disposed of his rival with four straight wins, a second-place finish and a sixth-place in the season finale at Riverside Raceway. Ironically, Allison won that race but lost the championship to Waltrip by 53 points. It was the first of Waltrip's two consecutive championships and third overall.
This was the passing of the torch in NASCAR as the 1979 championship was Petty's seventh and final title. But in order to win, he had to overcome a huge lead by the brash newcomer, Darrell Waltrip.
With 11 races to go, Petty was 229 points behind Waltrip. From that point forward, Petty made up the gap in what would be -- at the time -- the closest title race in NASCAR history.
With seven races remaining, The King still found himself down by 187 points, but won at Dover while Waltrip finished 29th, the combination slicing the deficit to 83 points. He continued to chip away and finally took the lead with a win at Rockingham. Waltrip finished fifth at Atlanta and Petty sixth and it was enough to give Waltrip the lead with one to go. It was another tight race battle at Riverside with Petty finishing fifth and Waltrip eighth, giving Petty the title by 11 points.
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, was a crew member at Petty Enterprises during that championship race. "That head-to-head race with Darrell and the chess game that was played between Richard and Darrell and Dale Inman [Petty's crew chief], to watch how all that unfolded was quite memorable," Pemberton recalled. "We still won some more races, but to be there for his last championship was special, although we didn't know at the time it would be his last championship. The team stayed buttoned up, kept charging forward and didn't make mistakes. It was a close-knit group at Petty Enterprises. It was great to be a part of that."
This was a key moment in NASCAR history because the following season Dale Earnhardt would win the first of his seven Cup championships as a new group of stars became central in the sport. And while Petty would go on to win a seventh Daytona 500 in 1981 and scored his 200th Cup win in 1984, he was never again a serious contender for a championship.
In the first year of the Chase for the Championship, Kurt Busch entered the season's final race as the leader, averting disaster when he lost a wheel on his car. Teammate Greg Biffle won the race, but Busch's fifth-place finish was enough to win the championship by eight points over Jimmie Johnson in what remains the closest points race in NASCAR Cup history.
"That year in '04, when I won [the title], there were five guys mathematically eligible for the championship. That's what we want to see every year and we have a great shot at it this year with the three guys that have separated themselves," Busch said. "Over the years in general, it's been a two-horse race coming to the end. But '92 sticks out and '04 sticks out for sure. It's amazing what the Chase format does to the nerves and to the teams and the drivers. I remember Jack Roush's famous speech before the Homestead week and that was, 'We have to prepare to fail.' I'm looking at him going, 'This is the speech being given before we head to Homestead? I'm confused.'
"There are so many emotions and so many different thoughts. Nine weeks can turn into nine months or these nine or 10 weeks can turn into nine or 10 days. It's amazing how it all happens, and when you're in that groove that [Jimmie] Johnson's been in, like I was in '04, it seems like everything just clicks. There's nothing that you second guess. You're always in the right groove and you never have to look back. You just keep looking forward at what the next task is."
Since that time, some teams have figured out how to make the Chase work to their advantage. The reason the first Chase was so successful was that the concept was so new, many of the teams hadn't figured it out, and thus it was a level playing field. But as seasons went on, Jimmie Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports team rose to the top with four straight championships from 2006 to 2009. He could make it five straight this season, but he will have to overcome a 33-point deficit to Denny Hamlin over the next two races.
This was the second installment of Waltrip's entertaining championship battle with Bobby Allison as Waltrip made up a 210-point deficit to leader Terry Labonte with 16 races left. As Labonte faded, Allison became Waltrip's main challenger for the title.
Waltrip was 101 points behind with six races to go, but a win at North Wilkesboro -- combined with a 23rd-place finish by Allison -- allowed him to close to 15 points. Allison fended Waltrip off the next week at Charlotte with a ninth-place effort to increase his lead to 37 points, but Waltrip regained the championship lead the next race with a win at Martinsville. Waltrip, who led by 37 points with three races left, closed strong again, winning Rockingham and finishing third at Atlanta and Riverside to outdistance Allison by 72 points.
At that point, Allison had never won a Cup championship, but he finally claimed the crown in 1983 when he defeated Waltrip for the title.
After losing the 1988 Cup championship to Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace figured out what it would take to claim the crown. But he had to overcome a 190-point deficit with 16 races remaining to win the championship.
"Both in 1988, when I lost, and in 1989 it was very stressful," Wallace recalled. "I did it all wrong in 1988. In 1988, I didn't care about bonus points, all I cared about was winning. When it was all said and done I got beat by bonus points, so in 1989 I tried to get all the bonus points that I could. I got 160 bonus points in 1989, more than anybody, and then Dale Earnhardt got 140 bonus points and I ended up beating him by 12, so getting the bonus points was everything in the world that season.
"These stretch runs were hard. I won 10 races in 1993 and lost the championship by 70 points. I didn't have the consistency that season and that hurt."
Wallace had been chasing Dale Earnhardt and still found himself trailing by 102 points with just six races remaining. A fourth-place finish at Martinsville trimmed the deficit to 75 and the pivotal moment for Wallace came the following race at Charlotte. Wallace finished eighth, but more importantly, a broken camshaft for Earnhardt dropped him to a 42nd-place finish and cost him the points lead.
Wallace had a 35-point lead with four to go and increased it to 109 with a seventh-place finish at North Wilkesboro and a runner-up effort at Rockingham while Earnhardt was 10th and 20th, respectively, as a result of accidents in both events. Earnhardt charged back in the final two races -- finishing sixth at Phoenix and winning the season-ending race at Atlanta -- but it was not enough to catch Wallace. Wallace closed with a 16th-place finish at Phoenix because of an accident and a cut tire and finished 15th at Atlanta to edge Earnhardt by just 12 points.
Gordon's second Cup championship came after he made the fourth-largest comeback in NASCAR history, overcoming a 184-point deficit to leader Dale Jarrett. Gordon had two wins and four top-5 finishes in the first six races, but his other two outings (30th, 42nd) dropped him to fifth and 184 points behind Jarrett. By race 13, he had recorded his sixth win of the season to tie Terry Labonte, and following a fifth-place finish at Michigan, he had claimed the lead. He lost the top spot on two occasions during the remainder of the season -- once to Labonte and another time to Mark Martin -- but maintained it for the final 10 races. Gordon defeated Jarrett for the championship by 14 points and Mark Martin by 29.
Labonte struggled in the first three races of the season to fall to 16th in the championship -- 211 points behind leader Dale Jarrett -- but by the 16th event of the 31-race season he had bounced back to take the lead. He held the lead for the majority of the second half, but swapped it with Jeff Gordon on a couple of occasions. A win at Dover with six races left gave Gordon the lead and he won the next two -- Martinsville and North Wilkesboro -- to go up 111 points on Labonte. Labonte came back with a win at Charlotte and third-place finishes at Rockingham -- which gave him the lead back by 32 -- and Phoenix to take a 47-point lead over Gordon heading into the season-ending race at Atlanta. He finished fifth to clinch the title by 37 points over Gordon.
Stewart had to overcome a 301-point handicap after the first 10 races of the season. With 10 races to go, he was still 118 points behind, but made his breakthrough at Talladega in early October. With Sterling Marlin out with a season-ending injury from the previous week's race at Kansas, Stewart took advantage by finishing second at Talladega and overtook rookie Jimmie Johnson for the championship lead. It was the first time he led the championship, taking a 72-point advantage over Mark Martin. He maintained the lead in the final six races and edged Martin by 38 points.
That leads us to the 2010 Chase for the Championship. After Hamlin drove to his eighth victory of the season Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, he took the lead away from Johnson, holding a 33-point advantage heading to Phoenix. Kevin Harvick is third, 59 points out and that has set up an outstanding three-driver battle to determine the title.
It has also changed the dynamic of what it will take to win a fifth championship for Johnson.
"I need to finish ahead of the 11 [Denny Hamlin] and the 29 [Kevin Harvick] and I think that's going to mean me winning races," Johnson said. "It's all offense right now. I have to go out and win races. It's real simple and almost comforting in a way. It's real easy to know what we need to do and there's nothing to protect."
A close points race is something this sport really has to have. While Johnson's historic run has made him one of NASCAR's all-time greats, his dominance has failed to capture the imagination of mainstream fans.
"This sport needs it bad right now," Rusty Wallace said. "I'm glad it's got it. I've talked to many people and I can't predict who is going to win this thing. The three guys are all good here and all good at Phoenix and Denny Hamlin won at Homestead last year. I think it's important that those three drivers are fighting it out because they are the cream of the crop."
There is a reason why close championship races have been rare since the dramatic 1992 title won by Kulwicki. The advent of the Chase has changed the game where mistakes by top-name drivers early in the final 10-races have widened the gap from the one or two drivers that start off hot.
The biggest reason close points races have become rare is the emergence of the No. 48 team at Hendrick Motorsports. From 2006 to 2009, Johnson's car, team and driver have been the best and it has only been the last few weeks that operations began to slow. Combine that with Hamlin's hard-charging style and NASCAR finally has a Chase worth bragging about for the first time since 2004.
With just two races to go, Hamlin is in control of the championship because in the Chase era, no driver has failed to win the championship when he led the standings after the eighth race. And this is the first time since 2006 that a driver other than Johnson has led the standings with just two races left in the season.
It appears that Johnson's seemingly invincible No. 48 team at Hendrick Motorsports cracked under pressure Sunday at Texas. After two poor pit stops, crew chief Chad Knaus benched his over-the-wall gang and replaced them with Jeff Gordon's crew, before Gordon's Chevrolet was rammed into the wall by Jeff Burton on Lap 190.
From the driver's seat, Johnson had a frustrating day. While Hamlin was able to replace him atop the points standings with his eighth victory of the season, Johnson struggled to a ninth-place finish. And imagine what went through the driver's mind when he pulled into the pit area and saw a different pit crew ready to work on his car during the second half of the race.
"You have to go out and try to win the championship. And if somebody's feelings got hurt, that's too bad," Johnson said. "We're here to win a championship and we've got to do everything we can. Even though today it was an embarrassing moment for my over-the-wall guys, they're giving all they can. Sometimes you just get beat. That's the way it is and today it just didn't work out.
"It's far from over. It's far, far from over."
"For me, we're on the cusp of trying to get our first championship, and as long as we keep doing what we've been doing, we should be OK."
"If somebody does something stupid, I'm going to be mad about it and I'm going to show him my frustration. If I could have gotten to Kurt Busch after Martinsville it would have been the same thing. I didn't see him. And I had time to calm down. And I walked down there hoping I would see Jeff, and I did. I'm lucky I had a long enough walk to think about what I wanted to say and do because if I hadn't of had that long a walk, I would have done something I would have regretted."
With two races to go to determine the NASCAR Cup championship, it's off to Phoenix to see if Denny Hamlin can hold on to his 33-point lead over Jimmie Johnson and his 59-point advantage over Kevin Harvick.