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Frontstretch 5: Best Clutch Performances in NASCAR Playoff History

Four unlucky drivers’ fates will be sealed after this coming Saturday’s (Sept. 18) Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, as the NASCAR Cup Series playoff field will be reduced from 16 to 12 competitors.

Alex Bowman, Tyler Reddick, William Byron and Michael McDowell all enter Bristol underneath the cutoff line, and each have 500 laps to make something happen in order to stay alive in the playoffs. Considering the rough-and-tumble nature that Bristol has a penchant for, a clutch performance by one of these drivers wouldn’t necessarily be expected. But anything is possible.

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Here’s five memorable times in playoff history where a driver came in and delivered big with their back against the wall. 

1. Kurt Busch – 2004 Ford 400

The inaugural playoff season featured plenty of drama leading up to the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin were the five remaining contenders who had a mathematical shot to become the 2004 Cup champion.

Busch was running second when he almost encountered disaster on lap 93. His right-front tire fell off the hub while the No. 97 was entering pit road, the car itself barely missing smashing into the end of the pit wall. Fortunately, the stray tire drew a caution, which helped Busch and crew finish their pit stop and stay on the lead lap.

The race was determined by an overtime finish. As Greg Biffle zoomed away for the win, Busch kept runner-up Johnson and third-place Gordon close enough in front of him. By finishing fifth, he was able to win the championship by a slim eight-point margin over Johnson. At 26 years old, he also became the third-youngest Cup champion at the time.

2. Tony Stewart – 2011 Ford 400

Through the first 26 races of the 2011 season, Tony Stewart was basically nowhere to be found. Once the playoffs started, however, he racked up four unanswered wins and became the only contender left to compete for the championship against Carl Edwards.

In the finale at Homestead, Stewart qualified 15th, while Edwards qualified on pole. Debris from Kurt Busch’s exploded transmission impacted Stewart’s front grill on just the third lap. The No. 14 crew made their repairs, losing plenty of positions in the process, but as the race went on, Stewart boldly charged his way back up the pylon. He eventually caught Edwards, passing him for good on the race’s final restart.

Stewart won the race while Edwards finished second, the pair tying at 2,403 points. Stewart’s five total wins was enough to break the tie, allowing him to claim his third Cup championship and the first for Stewart-Haas Racing.

3. Brad Keselowski – 2014 GEICO 500

The second round of the 2014 playoffs didn’t start so well for Brad Keselowski. A crash at Kansas Speedway and a bout of fisticuffs with Matt Kenseth at Charlotte Motor Speedway put him in a must-win situation at Talladega Superspeedway. Considering how Keselowski had two prior Cup wins and one NASCAR Xfinity Series win at the superspeedway, he was bound to have a trick up his sleeve that October afternoon in Alabama.

Keselowski qualified fifth and ran inside the top 10 the whole race, but other cutline drivers like Johnson, Earnhardt and Kyle Busch were attempting to do their best to deny the red deuce. Busch and Earnhardt fell victim to crashes, while Johnson became mired back in the pack in the final handful of circuits.

On the final lap during overtime, Keselowski charged his way past Ryan Newman on the backstretch and held off Kenseth and Landon Cassill in the tri-oval to accomplish the unthinkable. With the win, he locked himself into the following round in the playoffs, leaving us with a brilliant example of how the win-and-you’re-in format can be taken advantage of.

4. Jeff Gordon – 2015 Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500

The story of Jeff Gordon’s 93rd and final Cup win is a remarkable one. The four-time champion was looking to end his retirement year from full-time racing in NASCAR with a bang. And on a 60-degree November day in Martinsville, Va., it all came together in magical fashion.

Gordon had a top-five car all race long, but Joey Logano, Keselowski and Kenseth were the show-stealers of the day. On lap 436, though, a tangle between Keselowski and Kenseth left both their cars wounded. Just 19 laps later, Kenseth delivered his infamous payback on Logano in turn 1 after their Kansas incident two weeks earlier, which amplified the volume of the crowd as the incident unfolded. Finding himself in the right place at the right time was Gordon, who took the lead as the two drivers slammed into the wall.

Gordon kept a cool head through the mayhem, holding off Jamie McMurray in the overtime restart and cruising to his 93rd and final career Cup win, which locked him into the Championship Four at Homestead. Although he eventually came up two positions shy of winning a fifth series championship, that day in Martinsville was a fitting last hurrah.

5. Joey Logano – 2018 First Data 500

Logano did everything necessary to stay alive in the 2018 playoffs, but wasn’t deemed the greatest of threats for the championship. The “Big 3” of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. had established their championship-caliber status. But after the First Data 500 at Martinsville, the narrative was drastically changed.

Logano started 10th, but found his rhythm by the race’s one-third mark. He led a race-high 309 laps, but Truex didn’t make things easy for him by the end of it. At the white flag, Truex made the pass for the lead at the line. But going into turn 3 on the last lap, Logano used the old chrome horn, tapping the rear end of Truex’s car and washing him up the track. Logano went to Truex’s inside, and their infamous fender-bending drag race to the line ensued.

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Much to Truex’s anger, Logano won the race and locked himself into the Championship Four. And, as destiny would have it, Logano “won the damn war” over Truex at Homestead in the season finale and clinched the championship. Had he not executed his winning pass at Martinsville in clutch style, who knows how differently things could’ve turned out.

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Jeremy Mayfield – Richmond 2004

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