Homestead, Fla., serves as the official home for NASCAR's Chase for the Championship finale on Sunday, the final act in a 10-race ballet that has taken more twists and turns then an average episode of Lost. Once a 10-man show, just five still have a shot to win the title, the others failing to pass NASCAR's ultimate test while falling victim to bad handling, bad pit strategy, and plain ol' bad luck. Find yourself a little confused as to how things got to this point? Here's a quick review of the first nine races.
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It didn't take long to start eliminating competitors on this tricky flat oval. A wreck between Jeff Green and Kyle Busch after just one lap effectively ended the youngster's Chase chances before they even began. But it was the hard hit endured by Jimmie Johnson that proved the real surprise, with engine problems keeping him back in the pack just long enough to get swept up into a crash, courtesy of Sterling Marlin. "I hope I don't eat (my) words when I said you can't win the championship here in New Hampshire, but you can lose it today," said a devastated Johnson, who finished 39th. "As of now, it looks like things are out of our control to get back in this thing." Meanwhile, Kevin Harvick (in photo) dominated the race, leading 118 of the final 123 laps to earn his second Cup victory in a row and take the early lead in the standings.
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The Monster Mile grabbed another innocent victim: championship favorite Kasey Kahne was in the garage within 20 laps after a spinning Tony Stewart left him nowhere to go in turn three. Kahne's lonely view of the race from his perch in the garage (in photo) spoke volumes about a Chase that had already slipped through his grasp. "No more championship," said a dejected Kahne. "I think we'd have to win the final eight to win the Cup." Winning was something Jeff Burton hadn't accomplished on the Cup level since 2001, but after a spirited late race battle with former Roush teammate Matt Kenseth, the RCR driver found himself in the lead and pressing the cruise control button after Kenseth ran out of fuel. Becoming the second RCR driver to win in the Chase, Burton took over the points lead from his teammate heading to Kansas.
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Looking to challenge the early dominance of the RCR Chevys, Kansas appeared to be Hendrick Motorsports' time to shine, as Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch combined to lead 169 of 267 laps. Too bad their gas tanks weren't quite as strong; both drivers had to make an extra stop for fuel late in the going. The third Chaser from the Hendrick stable, Jeff Gordon, didn't even get the chance; his fuel pump failed with just 29 laps left, sending the Rainbow Warrior (in photo) plummeting to 39th. In the end, the only Hendrick driver not in the Chase, Brian Vickers, was the only teammate to finish in the Top 10. With most of the Chasers playing it safe, non-Chaser Tony Stewart rolled the dice, and it paid off; running the final 70 laps on fuel to claim the win. Not far behind him, Mark Martin cashed in, too, finishing third with his gas tank on fumes to cut valuable points out of Jeff Burton's lead. Finishing 5th, Burton found himself 69 points ahead of rookie Denny Hamlin and 70 ahead of Martin with three Chase races complete. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson fell 165 points behind after a third straight race of bad luck.
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The most competitive race in the Chase on the sport's fastest superspeedway was decided by teammates ... but not in the way that you'd expect. Heading to the white flag, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked headed to his sixth career win at Talladega, needing only to fend off Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson and Brian Vickers. As the three cars roared down the backstretch, Johnson looked to the inside and got a run on Earnhardt, Jr.; as expected, his teammate Vickers turned to bumpdraft him into the lead. What was unexpected was that Vickers' bump spun Johnson into Junior and took both of them out, letting Vickers speed by (in photo) for his first career victory. As the smoke cleared, Johnson was in shock. "I got wrecked by my own teammate," he said. "I know (Vickers) was trying to get his first win, but he was in position to finish second or third the way that was and gave me one hell of a push from behind and pushed me into the No. 8...and off we went." The finish allowed Jeff Burton to skate by with the point led despite finishing 27th with a tire problem. Burton's lead stood at just six over Kenseth and 10 over sentimental favorite Mark Martin.
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For a long time, the story at Lowe's appeared to be about Mark Martin. With the 47-year-old vet running in the top 5 much of the race, he seemed destined to take the points lead. Unfortunately, J.J. Yeley didn't get the memo, failing to move out of the racing groove when he slowed down for the pits. Martin was caught off guard and drilled both the No. 18 car and the outside wall. A cruel business, Lowe's had turned Martin (in photo) from hero to zero in the span of a few short seconds. "The championship was something that was just never meant to be for me, ever," said a dejected Martin after his wreck. Back on the track, a resurgent Kasey Kahne ran up front all night to grab the season sweep at Lowe's and score his league-leading sixth win of the season. Meanwhile, Johnson came home second, but still found himself 146 points behind point leader Jeff Burton and 101 behind second place Matt Kenseth at the halfway point of the playoffs. Little did anyone know it would be the beginning of five straight top 2 finishes for the No. 48.
7 of 10Jason Smith/US Presswire
The only short track in the Chase left drivers short on patience and stuck in traffic. Jeff Burton didn't need to worry about the latter; a faulty engine cut his day short before the race's halfway point, turning the Chase upside down with a 42nd place finish. With opportunity knocking, Jimmie Johnson (in photo) answered the door, outlasting hometown favorite Denny Hamlin in the closing stages, as the No. 48 took the checkered flag for his first win at the Speedway since a tragic plane accident killed 10 Hendrick family members, friends, and employees near Martinsville in 2004. The win allowed Johnson to close a once-impossible deficit to a manageable 41 points over new point leader Matt Kenseth.
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For a while, it looked like the 1.5-mile oval would play host to the Dale Earnhardt Jr. show, as NASCAR's most popular driver led for 95 laps. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Matt Kenseth also popped in and out of contention, all while the rest of the Chasers began eliminating themselves with what would amount to costly mistakes. Kyle Busch spun himself out within the first 20 laps; Kasey Kahne knocked himself into rookie David Stremme (in photo); Mark Martin was a victim of an accident not of his own making. All three found any dreams left of a title snuffed out by race's end. While the other Chasers battled among themselves, Chase-free Tony Stewart bided his time, eventually leading 145 of 325 laps and pulling away late to take the win over Jimmie Johnson. Still, Johnson's second-place finish moved him closer to rival Kenseth; the point margin at just 26 heading to Texas.
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For the second straight week, Tony Stewart (in photo) left the Chasers in his rearview mirror, this time leading 278 of 334 laps en route to his third win in the playoffs. Scoring more points than anyone else in the Chase format, Stewart's dominance called into question the effectiveness of the current format, leading to strong rumors addressed by NASCAR that major changes are forthcoming to the Chase in 2007. Jimmie Johnson surged forward late to take second and officially grab the point lead over Matt Kenseth; the margin now at 17 with two races remaining. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Denny Hamlin, and Kevin Harvick were the only other drivers left within striking distance. Harvick made his night interesting by spinning Scott Riggs for position in the top 5 with less than 10 laps to go, a move that led to a post-race push and shove between Harvick, his wife, a NASCAR official, and Riggs crew member Craig Curione.
10 of 10Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
After winning the Spring race in the Southwest, Harvick came through with his best performance since New Hampshire, leading all but 70 laps en route to a Phoenix season sweep. Unfortunately for him, Jimmie Johnson stood focused in his rear view mirror; keeping his competition in sight all day (in photo). Johnson expanded his points lead to 63 with one race remaining, making him an overwhelming favorite to finally claim the title he's coveted for years. Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch become officially eliminated from Chase contention.
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