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Aumann: Best performances of the Chase era

September 13, 2012, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

So what does it take to win a championship under the Chase format? Consistency, for one. Definitely perseverance, combined with a bit of luck. And it doesn't hurt if you can win races along the way.

When trying to compare Chases -- and come up with a subjective list of the five best performances -- it's impossible to rely on one specific statistic, because there isn't a definitive common thread.

In some cases, the champion turned out to be the driver who best avoided the disasters that befell the competition, whether by skill or sheer good fortune. In others, the guy holding the trophy at the end of the season found Victory Lane more often than anyone else.

And then there are the "near-miss" drivers, who strung together finishes that should have been good enough to win the title most years, only to have been beaten by someone who put together an exceptional run over the same 10 races.

Here's my top five list:

Carl Edwards came up second (twice) to Tony Stewart at Homestead. (Getty Images)

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5. Carl Edwards, 2011

If consistency is the key to winning the Chase, Edwards had that in spades last season. His average finish of 4.9 is No. 1 overall since the Chase format was instituted in 2004.

He avoided danger at Talladega, finishing 11th. At Martinsville, he made the most of his worst race, using free passes and fortuitous cautions to pull out a totally unexpected ninth-place finish.

RaceFinish RaceFinish
New Hampshire8 Martinsville9
Dover3 Texas2
Kansas5 Phoenix2
Charlotte3 Homestead 2

Edwards finished out the season with three consecutive runner-up finishes. In short, he did everything but win. Unfortunately for Edwards, Tony Stewart did so repeatedly. And the five victories that Stewart complied during the Chase not only erased Edwards' points advantage, but gave Stewart the title when the two wound up tied after Homestead.

Jimmie Johnson answered Jeff Gordon's consecutive Chase wins in 2007 with four in a row of his own. (Getty Images)

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4. Jeff Gordon, 2007

Gordon certainly understood Edwards' disappointment. Four seasons before, Gordon put together a string of races that would normally win the championship: nine top-10 finishes, including two victories. Like Edwards, Gordon's worst finish in the Chase was 11th.

But starting with Martinsville, Jimmie Johnson steadily erased Gordon's 68-point lead. Gordon kept putting together solid top-10 runs -- but Johnson kept winning. Johnson eventually won four races in a row, putting his Hendrick teammate 86 points behind heading into the season finale at Homestead.

RaceFinish RaceFinish
Dover11 Atlanta7
Kansas5 Texas7
Talladega1 Phoenix10
Charlotte1 Homestead4

Gordon finished fourth to continue his sterling Chase effort, but Johnson cruised home seventh to collect his second championship.

Kurt Busch won the very first Chase race, and the very first Chase title. (Getty Images)

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3. Kurt Busch, 2004

After starting off the Chase with a win at New Hampshire and six consecutive finishes of sixth or better, Busch seemed to have momentum going his way. That all changed at Atlanta, where an engine failure early in the race left him with a 42nd-place finish and wiped out a huge chunk of his points advantage.

Johnson, mired in ninth place and 247 points behind after Kansas, put together an amazing charge in the final six weeks. He won four races -- including three in a row -- to cut Busch's lead to 18 points heading into Homestead.

You want drama? Johnson started 39th and narrowly avoided not one but two early race crashes to eventually finish second, one spot in front of Hendrick teammate Gordon

But the break of the race, literally, had to go to Busch. On Lap 93, Busch slowed on the backstretch with what he thought was a flat tire. Instead, the entire right-front wheel broke off at the hub. Busch narrowly avoided hitting the pit wall, while the tire bounced down the front straight and brought out the caution flag, keeping Busch on the lead lap.

In fact, the tire rolled all the way to the exit of the pits, where it nearly beat Busch back to the scoring line.

RaceFinish RaceFinish
Dover5 Atlanta42
Talladega5 Phoenix10
Kansas6 Darlington6
Charlotte4 Homestead 5

From there, Busch rallied for a fifth-place finish and won the title by just eight points over Johnson.

Tony Steward produced the winningest Chase in history in 2011, and needed every one. (Getty Images)

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2. Tony Stewart, 2011

Stewart didn't need any odd twists of fate to earn his third NASCAR championship. He just needed a win.

Despite having already won four races in the Chase, Stewart still trailed Edwards by three points heading to Homestead. That meant Stewart had to win the season finale to guarantee the title -- and that would be by the tiebreaker if Edwards finished second and led the most laps.

RaceFinish RaceFinish
New Hampshire1 Martinsville1
Dover25 Texas1
Kansas15 Phoenix3
Charlotte8 Homestead 1

And that's exactly how it played out. Edwards won the pole and led 119 laps. But Stewart -- who survived damage to the front end of his car after hitting debris early in the race, slow pit stops, and even several rain delays -- persevered to beat Edwards to the start/finish line in a head-to-head duel over the final laps, cementing his place as one of the best ever.

Jimmie Johnson has won four races in a Chase three times, most recently in 2009, which was his fourth title. (Getty Images)

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1. Jimmie Johnson, 2009

With five titles, this could easily be a recitation of Johnson's dominance, but he was never better than in 2009, when he came within one bumper tap of clinching the championship with a race in hand.

How good was Johnson's Chase that season? He won three of the first five races and had a 184-point advantage over second-place Mark Martin after surviving Talladega.

With three races remaining, it seemed all Johnson had to do from that point forward was stay out of trouble. Easier said than done. Less than a handful of laps into the race at Texas, Johnson wound up crashing hard into the infield fence after being tapped by Sam Hornish Jr. while running three-wide on the backstretch.

RaceFinish RaceFinish
Dover1 Talladega6
Kansas9 Texas38
Fontana1 Phoenix1
Charlotte1 Homestead 5

Johnson wound up 38th, the lone blip in an otherwise perfect Chase, as he picked right back up the following weekend with a dominating win at Phoenix. Homestead was merely a 400-mile coronation, as Johnson avoided further trouble and recorded his seventh top-five finish of the Chase.