The 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup will be decided between three drivers this Sunday (Nov. 21) at Homestead-Miami Speedway in what is being billed by some as the closest title fight in history; even though it really isn’t. The Chase this year has been remarkable, if only for Jimmie Johnson being kept in check for the first time in five years and a legitimate competition unfolding throughout the 10-week playoff (race-off?) format. How will this compare to past championships that went down to the wire?
The first of the real slobber-knocker title fights that I remember since following the sport was back in 1989. Three drivers strode into the Atlanta Journal 500 with a shot at the title within 79 points of each other; Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt. Martin’s Stroh’s Light Ford blew an engine early in the going, which lead to an oil fire entering turn 1. Wallace was a mess, qualifying fourth but dropping quickly to the rear. Handling woes and some uncertainty regarding his points position made for an agonizing 500 miles.
Earnhardt, however, did what needed to be done that day: led the most laps, won the race and hoped Wallace had trouble. Earnhardt lead 249 of 328 laps and won the race going away while Wallace never led and finished three laps down. In those days however, three laps down still meant a top-20 finish. Wallace finished 15th in his Kodiak Pontiac and won his only Winston Cup championship.
Wallace celebrated by caving in the hood of his car; Earnhardt retreated to his tree stand and sulked for two months.
1990 was Earnhardt versus Martin – and most of Ford Motor Company. An off week prior to the final race of the year was customary in those days before the 36-week death march that is the order of the day now. It also allowed for a test session to take place, and a few days to help drum up some hoopla surrounding the final race of the season, a pitched championship battle that had been waged since June of that year.
A borrowed Robert Yates Racing Thunderbird with help from all of the other Ford teams proved counter-productive; the car was fast in testing but didn’t have all of the bugs worked out of it. Too many cooks in the kitchen cleared the way for Earnhardt to win his fourth championship.
In 1992, six drivers went into the final race in Atlanta with a shot at the Winston Cup, from between 30 and 113 points back. In the final four races that season, four different contenders won and finished first and second three of those events. In what quite possibly was the greatest single race ever ran, the championship was decided that year by having to try to win the race and lead the most laps. There was no sandbagging, not stroking around in 15th place all day; it was all systems go from the drop of the green flag – which promptly resulted in a wreck.
In 1995, Jeff Gordon needed to start the race and lead a lap to win his first title, while Earnhardt again was faced with the prospect of having to go all out, lead the most laps and win the race to have any sort of chance at catching the driver that had been deemed “Wonderboy.” The black No. 3 did what it always had to do in Atlanta when the money was on the line; led 268 laps and won the race, while Gordon limped around to a 32nd-place finish and led one lap. That was enough to win the title by 34 markers, denying Earnhardt the eighth title that would have broken the tie between he and Richard Petty.
Thirty four points. Petty’s number was 43… there is an equation somewhere here that explains everything, I’m sure of it.
In 1997, the championship was nearly decided on pit road during a practice session when Terry Labonte, driving Gordon’s No. 24, got loose on pit road and collided with the late Bobby Hamilton Sr., wrinkling the fender of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. The car was not that competitive on race day and he ran in the back of the pack most of the afternoon. Mind you, this was before the days of Lucky Dogs, wave-arounds or double-file restarts. If you went a lap down back then, unless you had the fastest car in the field, you were DONE, son.
The final laps of the race would see three different drivers in position to claim the Winston Cup; Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Martin. A burned piston with 10 laps to go foiled Martin’s chances, while Jarrett couldn’t quite catch Bobby Labonte for the win and Gordon just barely clung on to be the final car on the lead lap. It would be his second title in three years, and the third of four titles a year later.
2004 saw the inaugural Chase for the Championship ran at Homestead, with five drivers in contention for the first ever Nextel Cup. If there ever was a race that NASCAR needed to help validate their new playoff scheme, it was this one. Johnson and Gordon were the closest to Kurt Busch at 18 and 21 points behind (which makes me wonder why everyone keeps touting this weekend as “the closest title fight ever”), and were in prime position to decide the title between themselves – particularly after Busch lost a wheel coming to pit road and nearly impaled the car in the end of the retaining wall.
Busch was able to rally back for a top five and Johnson couldn’t get to Busch’s Roush teammate Greg Biffle, who won the race, preventing Johnson from earning the extra five points for the position or the five bonus points for having led a lap.
Busch would win the title by eight points; the closest margin to date.
Recounting these past races and battles jogs the memory machine and usually degenerates into a two-hour long YouTube session looking for clips of these races. What made these races and championship fights so spectacular? Was it because there wasn’t a Chase? Keeping the points that tight for 10 months is a remarkable feat to be sure.
The personalities? That championship class of 1992 had a number of fan favorites, diverse personalities and sadly two drivers who are no longer with us. Gordon was every bit as dominant and polarizing as Johnson is today, yet people seemed more involved and invested in the outcome.
Maybe it is the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, ADD spurred on by the Internet, text messaging and a media sensory overload that didn’t exist 20 years ago. The cars might not be that attractive today, the television coverage may leave you wanting, or maybe it’s because you really have to be out to stay a lap down now.
Whatever the outcome this weekend, and whatever your feelings are about the Chase or the drivers involved, I hope that we can all look back fondly on this in two decades time, and remember the events and nuances of the day, how it unfolded and what made it a race and a championship worth celebrating.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.