_In every playoff, there can only be one winner. So how did the other 11 drivers wind up staring at the Homestead trophy instead of taking it? Matt McLaughlin looks back on how each of the other Chaser’s title hopes died on the vine this season._
*Kyle Busch (12th place)* Busch’s title hopes died of self-inflicted wounds. When Busch lost his notoriously short temper and wrecked Ron Hornaday in the Texas truck event, he killed his own chances at a Cup title as surely as he deprived Hornaday a chance of winning the truck title. NASCAR asked Vile Kyle to sit out that Sunday’s Cup race at TMS and without earning any points that weekend he pretty much cemented his 12th- place finish. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
*Kurt Busch (11th place)* The elder of the Busch brothers may have lost his chance at a championship off the track. The Chase was barely underway when rumors began running rampant that crew chief Steve Addington would leave the team at the end of the year. (And who would blame him with all the crap Kurt gives him over the radio practically from the drop of the green flag every weekend.) That sort of uncertainty can destroy a team’s morale. Perhaps it fortunate that Busch entered Homestead without a chance at the title because when that transmission failed on the third lap he’d probably have outdone his little brother’s tantrum by punching a nun or something. As it was Busch used his misfortune to launch a profane tirade at popular ESPN pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch. “(Click here to see”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NsaBQq5D4Zg but please, make sure the kids are in another room if you do. The language is pretty raw.)
*Ryan Newman (tenth place)* The bell rang but Newman’s title chances stumbled right out of the gate. After an eighth-place finish at Chicago to kick off the Chase, Newman subsequently finished 25th at Loudon, 23rd at Dover and 18th at Kansas. The final nail in his coffin was a 38th-place finish after Newman got wrecked from behind at Talladega. And here’s the amazing part. It wasn’t Kyle Busch that wrecked him, it was his own teammate and friend (not to mention the owner of the 39 car) Tony Stewart who hit him.
*Denny Hamlin* Hamlin actually ran quite well during the middle portions of the Chase and not all that badly in the final two races this year. Like Newman he stumbled out of the gate and spotted the leaders a ton of points with 31st-place finish at Joliet, a 29th-place result at Loudon, an 18th-place finish at Dover and a slightly less miserable 16th-place finish at Kansas. Truthfully I think Hamlin’s fate was sealed after last year’s Phoenix race. Forced to make that extra pit stop he went into an emotional meltdown that carried over to Homestead last fall despite the fact he entered that event as the points leader. Somebody get Hamlin Carl Edwards’ sports psychologist’s number. He’s been waking every night since thinking there’s a Jimmie Johnson hiding under his bed.
*Jeff Gordon (Eighth place)* The Chase didn’t start well for Gordon who ran out of gas in the waning laps at Joliet. Kansas proved to be Gordon’s downfall this year–a blown engine left him 34th in the final rundown. While he struggled for much of the Charlotte chase race Gordon patiently worked his way up into the top 10 before spinning himself out. That dropped him to a 21st-place finish that evening. At Phoenix the 24 team blamed a 32nd-place finish on brake issues but to be honest Gordon was never up to speed that afternoon even before the brakes had a chance to heat up.
*Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (Seventh place)* Well at least he was back in the Chase again NASCAR marketing folks expressed gleefully. Yeah, Earnhardt was there but he was pretty much taking up space as Tony Stewart might have put it. In ten Chase races Earnhardt led all of two laps (both at Talladega) and as we saw those laps led bonus points are of extreme importance now given the fact leading even just one lap is the same as finishing another full place higher anywhere from 2nd to 43rd. (If you’re confused here, last year a driver who finished second and didn’t lead a lap earned four more points than the driver who finished third but led a lap. This year the driver who finished second an didn’t lead a lap earned the same points as the driver who finished third and led a lap. Yeah, it’s retarded.) Earnhardt couldn’t stay out during green flag pit sequences to steal a “lap led” point because he usually wanted to short pit because he had issues with the car. But the real deal killer was the fact his pit crew kept having slow stops or forgot to tighten lug-nuts.
*Jimmie Johnson (Sixth place)* When Johnson won the second race of the Chase, Kansas, the general consensus was “Oh, boy here we go again. Looks like a sixth title is in the bag. Johnson was quick to dissuade anyone of that notion. At Charlotte, once his best track, Johnson didn’t just wreck his car he stuffed it into the wall windshield deep. In the tandem race that was Talladega two Johnson was partnered with teammate Earnhardt, Jr. who knows a thing or two about winning at Talladega. The less than dynamic duo that day decided to play it safe and cruise around at the rear of the field. Apparently they never got the memo that the race was about over and that left Johnson with a 26th-place finish that also left him out of contention for a sixth straight title. Carburetor issues and a spin at Homestead were just the icing on the cake for a lackluster season by this outfit’s standards.
*Brad Keselowski (Fifth place)* I’ll be frank. If I had to wager on this year’s champion after Talladega I’d have put a fin on Keselowski if for no other reason he actually drove hard during the race ending up with a fourth-place finish that had him breathing down the neck of Carl Edwards. Things started going wrong for Keselowski at Martinsville. He was running eighth late in the race but got caught up in a wreck not of his own making and wound up 17th. At Texas Keselowski got boxed into his stall and backed into Denny Hamlin trying to exit in reverse. And by that point Edwards and Stewart was thundering off into the distance.
*Matt Kenseth (Fourth place)* Other than Chicago Kenseth’s Chase got off to a great start culminating with a win at Charlotte. The TV announcers had all but anointed Kenseth this year’s champion during the early stages of the Martinsville race. That’s up until the normally placid and clean Kenseth moved Brian Vickers out of his way. Subsequently Kenseth pitted and made contact with Kevin Harvick returning to the track which apparently cut down a tire putting the 17 car into the wall. When Vickers mugged Kenseth on the track as he was just cruising around after an extended stay in the garage for repairs that just ended the misery. And the Vickers/Kenseth tiff wasn’t quite over. At Phoenix Vickers wrecked Kenseth once again.
*Kevin Harvick (Third place)* When Harvick won the last regular season race at Richmond he was clearly on a roll and he started the chase tied at the top of the points standings. A second-place finish at Joliet to kick off the Chase just upped the ante a little on his pursuers. Everything was going according to plan. Unlike Johnson, Edwards and others Harvick didn’t take the cautious strategy of cruising around out back most of the race. The move bit Harvick when he wrecked and finished 32nd. Finishing as the fourth survivor at Martinsville the following week seemed to put a little wind back in the 29 team’s sails but the Stewart Express was just steaming out of the station. So what’s the correct strategy at a Talladega Chase race, cruise around out back to the end or run towards the front and get wrecked? The correct strategy is to eliminate Talladega from the Chase. Plate racing is like having the Dancing with the Stars pseudo-celebrities have to attempt swimming across an alligator infested swamp instead of dancing one week.
*Carl Edwards (Second place)* If you’d told me before this season began that a driver could average better than a fifth-place finish during the Chase and still come up short I’d have asked you if you were smoking salvia or sticking with the old fashioned grass. Edwards started the season with a seemingly sound strategy (It’s worked for Jimmie Johnson several times) to be conservative and just rack up top-10 finishes for the first 26 races without forcing the issue and risking a finish of thirty-something. Edwards’ only win this year came at Las Vegas, ironically enough because Tony Stewart, who had dominated the race, had trouble in the pits. The few times Edwards was out of the points lead this year he wasn’t far out of it.
Going into the Chase he admitted he was worried about Talladega and if he could just get a decent finish there and not wreck he’d be satisfied. In fact that day in Alabama Edwards ran around at the back of the pack until the final two laps. He then asserted himself a bit but only to eleventh place. (Ironically the initial finishing order showed him as having finished tenth but the timing and scoring lines in fact showed he’d actually been eleventh.) I lost a lot of respect for Edwards that day and I had a notion that the strategy would come back to haunt him. Had Edwards in fact finished tenth at Talladega he’d be celebrating a championship right now.
Others have pointed out to me that Edwards could have earned that one extra point at any of this year’s races. He could have passed Trevor Bayne in the final lap of the Daytona 500. But perhaps the most telling moment outside of Talladega was at Texas. Edwards restarted the race on the final restart with the lead but Tony Stewart passed him on the outside. Edwards didn’t put up much of a fight, though he could have gone up there and clanged fenders a bit trying to fend Stewart off. Stewart’s pass was a four point swing in the standings, more than enough markers than he’d ultimately need to get the job done. You have to wonder if Edwards was recalling that pass at Texas during the final 33 laps at Homestead.
As it stands written in the book of Bruce; well they came so far, and they waited so long, just to reach the part of the dream where everything goes wrong, where the dark of the night, holds back the light of the day, and you learn to sleep with the price you pay…
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