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Top 10 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup moments

September 07, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Faces, places and races that made the first nine Chases special

Entering its 10th edition this season, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has become as entrenched in NASCAR as tires and fuel. The playoff has created a second season of its own, one so successful in heightening drama and raising the competitive stakes that other sports like golf and drag racing have copied the concept. What once were often coronations have become white-knuckle dogfights down to the last race -- and sometimes, to the last lap.

Over that span, the Chase has written a history of its own -- creating moments that have become bigger, mistakes that have become magnified, triumphs that can resonate well beyond a single afternoon. The playoff may be a 10-race competition contested among 12 drivers, but individual snapshots stand out like the gleam off the sterling silver trophy each driver is pursuing. These are the 10 most memorable from the Chase’s first 10 years.

10. Thunder on the prairie: Kansas, 2007

Tony Stewart a four-time champion? Jimmie Johnson’s run interrupted before it had really begun? That’s certainly what seemed to be taking shape at Kansas Speedway in October of 2007 -- until weather intervened. Everyone knew the rain was coming, and when it came, there would be a lot of it. That much was evident by the green, yellow and red blobs sweeping across the radar, the kind of thunderstorm only the plains could produce.

Stewart gambled on fuel and stayed out, thinking the rest of the race might be washed out. When the storm did come, it halted the race for more than two hours -- with Stewart both out front, and with a healthy points lead. But when the rain stopped, NASCAR dried the track and got in as much of the race as daylight allowed. When one of the strangest days in Chase history finally ended with Greg Biffle coasting across the finish line on fumes, Stewart was 35th after being caught in a late accident, and Johnson had reclaimed the points lead by finishing third -- another step toward a second straight title.

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9. Out of tolerance: New Hampshire, 2010

Clint Bowyer was all smiles after the 2010 Chase opener at New Hampshire, and with good reason. He had dominated the field, leading 177 laps and taking the checkered flag after his closest pursuer, Stewart, ran out of fuel on the final lap. It had been quite an opening statement for the driver from Kansas, who held up a big lobster in Victory Lane and moved up to second in the Chase standings, 35 points behind leader Denny Hamlin.

Any celebration was short-lived, though. The next week, inspectors at the NASCAR Research and Development Center determined the rear end of Bowyer's vehicle had been manipulated. The team had been warned about cutting it close the week before, and the penalty was severe -- 150 points, which was ultimately upheld on appeal and dropped Bowyer to the bottom of the standings, 185 off the lead. Bowyer would go on to win one more race in that Chase, but his championship hopes had been effectively dashed.

8. Crisis and celebration: Homestead, 2012

All Brad Keselowski needed was to finish 16th, which seemed simple enough for a driver who had been on cruise control for much of the second half of last year’s Chase. But the pressure of winning a first title is a strange thing, and it showed in the finale at Homestead, when Keselowski uncharacteristically found himself mired in the middle of the pack. Even worse -- Johnson, bent on winning his sixth title, was coming.

The five-time champ was on the brink of making up a difference that had seemed insurmountable. Suddenly, Keselowski seemed on the wrong side of the fuel-mileage game and in danger of having to make an extra pit stop. Suddenly, Johnson was at the front. Suddenly, the title was in doubt -- until Johnson’s team missed a lug nut, and then the No. 48 car suffered a punctured drive line and had to go to the garage. Keselowski, meanwhile, finished 15th to secure his first title, and then kicked off a crazy beer-fueled celebration that was every bit as memorable as the event itself.

7. For want of a heim joint: New Hampshire, 2008

It had been the summer of Kyle Busch. He had won eight times, four of them coming in one torrid six-week stretch that cemented Busch as the favorite for the championship. He entered the Chase as the playoff’s No 1 seed, won the Coors Light Pole for the opener at New Hampshire, and looked every bit as if he was ready to keep the roll going.

And he might have -- if not for a rear suspension piece called a heim joint that came unhooked during the race, and made Busch’s No. 18 car impossible to drive. Joe Gibbs Racing would later find that in the rush to get the car through inspection, a nut hadn’t been properly tightened. Busch finished 34th, dropped to eighth in the Chase standings, and lost all the mojo he had built over the summer. The next week, his engine failed. The week after that, he had a fuel-pump problem. That season became emblematic of quality-control issues at JGR, and Busch became a footnote as Johnson wrapped up title No. 3.

6. “He’s not going to sleep for three weeks”: Martinsville, 2011

Simply winning at Martinsville late in the 2011 season would have been enough for Stewart to add spark to that season’s championship race. But no, he went a step further and issued a verbal challenge to the driver who had become his biggest rival in that Chase. “He better be worried. That’s all I’ve got to say,” Stewart said of Carl Edwards in Victory Lane. “He’s not going to sleep for the next three weeks.”

And just like that, it was on. If we thought this championship race had been a testy one before, the intensity level had just been turned all the way up to 11. Stewart kept it going: “We’ve been nice all year to a lot of guys,” he said later. “… We’re cashing tickets over these next three weeks.” Edwards took it all in stride, and Stewart admitted later it was all one big mind game. But it was also riveting, and it continued all the way to Homestead, and a contender’s press conference that featured enough verbal sparring to make Don King proud.

5. The streak: Martinsville-Phoenix, 2007

The 2007 season was shaping up as one of Jeff Gordon’s best. The four-time champion would net six race victories and 21 top-five finishes over the course of that campaign, harkening back to the glory days of his career. The 30 top-10 finishes he netted still stand as a personal best. He won back-to-back races midway through the Chase and owned a 68-point lead in the standings. But there was one thing he couldn’t stop: Jimmie Johnson.

What very well could have been a fifth championship season for Gordon instead became a mesmerizing display of strength for Johnson, who was beginning to appear unstoppable. After Gordon’s wins at Talladega and Charlotte, Johnson reeled off four straight victories that left his Hendrick Motorsports teammate waving a white flag. By the time the streak was over, Johnson held an 86-point lead and was on his way to recording back-to-back titles for the first time since Gordon did it in the late 1990s.

4. Johnson’s run: Charlotte-Phoenix, 2006

That 2007 effort wasn’t the first time Johnson used an unrelenting run to subdue the competition. He had put on an even more impressive display one year earlier, and under much more dire circumstances. By 2006, relationships were becoming strained on a No. 48 team that thought it was overdue to win a title. The pressure was tangible. And then at Talladega in the Chase, disaster -- Johnson was headed for victory when he was inadvertently spun by Brian Vickers on the final lap, and he left Alabama eighth in points, 156 back with just six events to go.

What a six events they were. Beginning with a runner-up finish the next week at Charlotte, it was as if a switch had been flipped. Over five races Johnson placed second, first, second, second and second. By the time that stretch ended at Phoenix, he led the standings by 63 points. Looking back, there seems no way it should have happened. But it did, allowing Johnson to claim his first title, and fling open the door to more.

3. Out of gas. Phoenix, 2010

If there was one moment when Johnson’s five-year reign seemed most in jeopardy, it was at Phoenix in the penultimate race of the 2010 campaign. Top Chase seed Denny Hamlin entered with a 33-point lead and all kinds of momentum after winning the previous week at Texas, where crew chief Mike Ford had talked as big as his new black cowboy hat. On the desert mile, the No. 11 team appeared on the verge of essentially clinching the title by virtue of a fuel strategy that threatened to put Hamlin out of the reach of anyone else.

But the plan backfired, forcing Hamlin to make a late stop for gas and relegating him to a 12th-place finish in a race where he could have effectively clinched the crown. Johnson finished fifth and 15 points behind, but left with newfound confidence and momentum that allowed him to secure a fifth the following week at Homestead. Hamlin was so devastated by the collapse that he spent nearly the entire next season in a funk.

2. Lose a tire, win a title: Homestead, 2004

The Chase set a very high bar from the beginning, in producing a championship battle between Gordon, Johnson, and then-26-year-old Kurt Busch that would become the closest ever. The finale at Homestead was mesmerizing, with the drivers leap-frogging one another in the standings on almost every lap. Busch had entered the race with an 18-point lead over Johnson and a 21-point edge over Gordon, but it all was nearly lost on lap 93 when Busch felt his right-front tire losing air pressure.

What happened next is impossible to forget -- Busch swerving low to pit, the right-front wheel on his No. 97 car snapping loose, the vehicle bottoming out and throwing sparks. Somehow he held on, and as the wheel rolled away, Busch maneuvered his disabled vehicle onto pit road, barely missing water barriers at the entrance. Had the incident occurred anywhere else on the track, Busch would have almost certainly lost a lap. But he hung on, finished fifth and won the title by eight points over Johnson.

1. Fit to be tied: Homestead, 2011

The smack talk that had begun three weeks earlier at Martinsville reached its climax at Homestead, where Stewart and Edwards staged what may go down as the greatest NASCAR championship battle of all time. After doing all he could to get into his opponents’ head, Stewart backed it up on the race track. In a Chase this close, there was only one way to assure the title -- by reaching Victory Lane. Which is exactly what Stewart did.

From beginning to end, it was electric. Stewart weathered an early pit stop miscue, damage to the front end of his race car, and an iffy fuel strategy that was bailed out by a rain delay. By almost force of will, he made it happen, passing 118 cars on the track and becoming the first driver to come from behind in the standings and take the title by winning the final race. Edwards gave it everything and finished second, knotting Stewart in the standings. It wasn’t enough -- Stewart’s five wins proved the tiebreaker, his third career championship assured by a victory in the race of his life.

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