NASCAR's top 10 season finales
November 14, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
It all comes down to this.
Once again, NASCAR's season-ending playoff will be decided in the last race, with Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick trying to run down Jimmie Johnson in one final showdown Sunday under the swaying royal palms of south Florida. Either the circumstances at Homestead-Miami Speedway will conspire to help the pursuers pull off an unlikely comeback, or Johnson will climb within one title of the sport's all-time record.
Although the implementation of the Chase, and later the simplified points system, have fostered a run of dramatic finishes, the season-long championship coming down to the last race -- or even the last few laps -- is nothing new. Whether it was Joe Weatherly, Benny Parsons, Bobby Allison or Brad Keselowski, they all had to sweat out that final checkered flag before they could celebrate. They all claimed titles that weren't decided until the season's final day.
And so it will be once again on Sunday, when the personal duels between Johnson, Kenseth and Harvick will unfold within the larger scope of a 400-mile race. By the time darkness falls, by the time fireworks are shot off and the championship stage is rolled into place on the frontstretch, this season's finale may well have claimed a place among the best ever. Until then, here are the top 10.
10. Suspense and suds, 2012
It was supposed to be an easy Sunday drive -- all Brad Keselowski needed to claim his first title was 16th place at Homestead, which seemed no sweat given the run of excellence that had put him in that position. But the No. 2 team's pit strategy didn't unfold as intended, and Keselowski found himself mired in traffic as Jimmie Johnson moved to the front. Suddenly the point gap between them was narrowing, and the title seemed in doubt -- until the No. 48 crew dropped a lug nut, followed by Johnson suffering a broken drive line that knocked him out of the race. Keselowski managed 15th for good measure, then unleashed a beer-soaked celebration that became legendary in its own right.
9. Taking the fifth, 2010
The heavy lifting had been done the week before at Phoenix, when Jimmie Johnson stretched his fuel over the final 77 laps to salvage a top-five finish that kept his fifth consecutive championship within sight. He still came to Homestead behind, trailing Denny Hamlin by 15 points, but in the end Johnson would become only the third driver since 1975 to overcome a deficit and win the title in the final race. Johnson finished as runner-up to Carl Edwards, while Hamlin labored to a 14th-place finish on a problematic afternoon. Johnson's final margin was 39 points, a stunning turnaround from midway through the previous week's race, when it looked like Hamlin was on the verge of taking complete control. But he didn't, and the man they would soon call Five-Time would make him pay.
8. Tension in the Trucks, 2003
It may not have been Sprint Cup, but the last race in the 2003 Camping World Truck Series finale featured so much anger, drama and controversy it begs for inclusion. Team owner Jim Smith entered five vehicles in the race to give title hopeful Ted Musgrave plenty of help, and one of those played a central role when a Marty Houston wreck took out Brendan Gaughan, who had led the standings by 26 points over Musgrave coming in. But Musgrave was black-flagged for an illegal pass on a restart, opening the door for Travis Kvapil to claim the title -- although NASCAR deliberated the penalty for some time before making Kvapil's nine-point final margin official. Gaughan fumed at Smith, Bobby Hamilton made a last-lap pass to win the race, and Carl Edwards secured Rookie of the Year. Just another day in the Truck Series.
7. A bittersweet triumph, 1963
The great Joe Weatherly earned his two NASCAR titles in very different ways: The first was behind the wheel of Bud Moore's car, the second was a patchwork effort that saw Weatherly drive for nine different owners over the span of his 53 starts. It was a necessity, given that this was the age before national sponsorship, when the era of the factory teams was ending and fully-funded rides were becoming scarce. Even so, Weatherly won three times that season and finished seventh in the finale at the defunct Riverside International Raceway to edge Richard Petty for the championship by 2.28 points.
6. An Alabama slammer, 1983
He had finished second in the championship race five times, and at 45 years old it might have been easy for Bobby Allison to wonder if he'd always be remembered as the best driver never to have won a title. That all changed in 1983, in a season where he and Darrell Waltrip battled one another on the track and jawed at one another off it, setting the stage for a tense endgame between two headstrong competitors. A third-place finish in the penultimate event at Atlanta gave Allison some breathing room, and the next week at Riverside he finished ninth to secure his only title by 47 points over Waltrip. In the process, Allison became the oldest driver ever to earn his first title and took a large step toward his eventual inclusion in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
5. Rough day at the Rock, 1973
As a former cab driver from Detroit, Benny Parsons was probably used to tough days behind the wheel. But North Carolina Speedway in the final week of the 1973 season was another matter altogether. Parsons entered the finale with a lead of 194.35 points over Richard Petty, and 208.65 over Cale Yarborough, seemingly in control -- until a crash just 13 laps in forced Parsons to spend the next 136 circuits in the garage undergoing repairs. He finally returned at a greatly reduced speed, and missing most of the sheet metal on his car's right side. But Petty suffered an engine problem -- without which, he might be an eight-time titlist today -- and Parsons held on to manage a 28th-place finish that netted his only championship by 67.15 points over Yarborough.
4. Lucky number seven, 1979
The number that would come to set the standard for championships at NASCAR's premier level was established in 1979, when Richard Petty claimed what would become the last of his seven crowns. But it didn't come easy -- the King actually trailed Darrell Waltrip by two points entering the finale at Ontario Motor Speedway, the defunct Southern California layout designed as a double to Indianapolis. Petty did what he needed to do, qualifying near the front and leading six laps before settling for a fifth-place finish that would prove good enough. Waltrip came home eighth and finished 11 points short, marking the first time the lead in the standings had changed hands on the final day. Petty celebrated his seventh title, and the Rookie of the Year that day was a driver who would eventually match him: Dale Earnhardt.
3. A wheel and a prayer, 2004
It was a mesmerizing finish to the inaugural Chase, a finale that Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon entered separated by 21 points. They'd finish much closer than that, but not after a race that saw the three top contenders leap-frogging one another in the standings with almost every lap. On Lap 93, Busch thought his right-front tire was losing air pressure. He was wrong -- the wheel was loose, and it snapped off just as Busch had turned onto pit road, causing the No. 97 car to bottom out and throw sparks. As Busch ground his way to his pit stall, the loose wheel bounded down the frontstretch and caused a caution that perhaps saved his title hopes. Instead of getting lapped, the 26-year-old hung on to finish fifth and claim the title by eight points over Johnson in what was the closest final margin ever at that time.
2. Rise of the Underbird, 1992
Before the race even started, the stage was set for a memorable finish to the 1992 season at Atlanta. Richard Petty was making his final start, capping a weekend of festivities. Some youngster named Jeff Gordon was making his debut. And the title race featured Davey Allison 30 points ahead of Alan Kulwicki, and 40 ahead of Bill Elliott. The event lived up to its billing, and the title picture changed almost immediately when Hut Stricklin, while trying to avoid another wreck, struck Allison from behind. Elliott took advantage, leading the most laps and winning the race -- but it wasn't enough to stop Kulwicki, who finished second to claim perhaps the most unlikely title in history. With 11 employees, $1.5 million in sponsorship, a Mighty Mouse patch on his firesuit and the first two letters scratched off what would become the Underbird, the driver/owner had done something people still marvel at today.
1. Fit to be tied, 2011
Although Tony Stewart did his best to get inside of Carl Edwards' head during the latter stages of the 2011 Chase, he was most effective on the race track. Then a two-time champion, Stewart won four of the first nine playoff events to pull within three points of Edwards as the circuit arrived in Homestead. It had been a stunning reversal to a mediocre regular season, one in which Stewart had not only gone winless and sneaked into the Chase as the ninth seed, but also secretly fired crew chief Darian Grubb effective at the end of the year. And though Stewart was the one playing the mind games, it was Edwards who had twice won at the South Florida track.
And goodness, did he make a run at a third victory. The Roush Fenway Racing driver started from the pole and led 119 laps as Stewart was forced to regroup from a front grille that had been damaged by debris. And yet momentum swung after a rain delay, and Stewart led the final 36 laps to claim a stunning fifth victory in the Chase, one he had to have to edge Edwards in a tiebreaker -- the first in NASCAR history to decide the title. The difference was Stewart's five victories on the season versus Edwards' one, that last triumph looming the largest. Edwards finished second, but it wasn't enough. Victory Lane stood empty as Stewart celebrated his twin triumphs by hoisting a sterling silver cup on the championship stage.