Homestead: 'Chase' final round preview

• Five drivers have chance at championship, at season finale • Winning season finale might be prerequisite for winning championship • 82-point finale spread between first and fifth closest in premier series history • Handicapping the...

• Five drivers have chance at championship, at season finale

• Winning season finale might be prerequisite for winning championship

• 82-point finale spread between first and fifth closest in premier series history

• Handicapping the Chase drivers in Homestead terms; Stewart gets nod

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Nov. 16, 2004) -- Has the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup worked out as hoped?

You be the judge.

Start with Exhibit A: Five drivers have a chance to win the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series championship, going into the Ford 400, Sunday's suddenly spruced-up season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

And the way the Chase has transpired, whoever wants the championship better start by going after a race victory this weekend. In fact, a victory may well end up being a prerequisite for capturing the title, as might garnering the 10 bonus points available (five for leading a lap and five for leading the most laps).

The five drivers in the running are separated by 82 points, making this the closest season-finale battle in the history of NASCAR's top series.

Those contenders:

• First-place Kurt Busch (No. 97 IRWIN/Sharpie Ford).

• Second-place Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), 18 behind Busch.

• Third-place Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet), 21 behind.

• Fourth-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet), 72 behind.

• Fifth-place Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford), 82 behind.

And, technically, you could toss Tony Stewart (No. 20 The Home Depot Chevrolet) into that mix. Stewart trails Busch by 185. Since the maximum points a driver can earn per event is 190 -- 180 for a victory, plus five bonus points for leading a lap and leading the most laps -- the only way Stewart could win the championship is if every driver ahead of him failed to start the race at Homestead, and he earned the maximum number of points available.

Which means, of course, that we're back to five potential champions.

The impending showdown at Homestead has immediately earned its place in NASCAR lore. Only one other season-ending race in the Modern Era (since 1972) has had this many drivers eligible for the championship; the legendary 1992 finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway had six drivers in the running, a free-for-all won by the late Alan Kulwicki.

"This is just incredible," said NASCAR Vice President of Corporate Communications Jim Hunter. "I can't remember a time in NASCAR history when a championship race has come down to this type of scenario, even though in 1992 there were six drivers within 113 points."

Further evidence that this is a clear divergence from the past:

• In the 32 previous Modern Era seasons -- 1972-2003 -- there were 14 seasons when the championship was clinched prior to the season finale;

• Four other years it was more-or-less clinched, as the points leader needed only to start the race to wrap up the title.

By any measurement, the Chase's modified format for determining the champion has achieved the goal of an exciting, down-to-the-wire shootout. Per the new format, after 26 races, the top-10 drivers in points had their totals reset; the top 10 were grouped within 45 points top-to-bottom, separated by five-point increments.

Whereupon, the Chase was on.

And now, it is wrapping up with a season-ender rich in storylines.

Said Hunter: "We have a four-time series champion in Jeff Gordon. There's Jimmie Johnson, who's just been sensational. There's the fan favorite, Dale Earnhardt Jr. There's sentimental favorite, Mark Martin, who's a four-time runner-up. And there's Kurt Busch, who is trying so hard to give veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig his first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup championship.

"In my three decades in the sport -- and that's a long time -- I've never seen a championship race this close and this exciting. This finale is going to be like a winning field goal in the final seconds in football, or a buzzer-beater shot in basketball or a home run in the bottom of the ninth in baseball."

HANDICAPPING THE CHASE COMPETITORS -- IN HOMESTEAD TERMS

Following is a look at the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup drivers' histories at Homestead-Miami Speedway. They are "ranked" based on their average finish at Homestead.

• Tony Stewart (No. 20 The Home Depot Chevrolet); Average Homestead finish -- 9.2. Stewart, the 2002 series champion who comes to Homestead sixth in the Chase standings, is one of the drivers who have started all five NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races at Homestead. He's one of a few drivers who can tout serious success at the track. Stewart has two victories there -- he won the first two races, in 1999 and 2000.

• Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet); Average Homestead finish -- 11th. The four-time series champion, third in the Chase standings, is winless at Homestead but he does have four top-10 finishes and two top fives.

• Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet); Average Homestead finish -- 12th. Johnson, second in the Chase points, has one top five and two top 10s in three Homestead starts. His best finish was a third, last year.

• Jeremy Mayfield (No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge); Average Homestead finish -- 13.5. Mayfield, 10th in the Chase, has two top-10 Homestead finishes in four starts.

• Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford); Average Homestead finish -- 13.6. The four-time series runner-up, fifth in the Chase, also is winless at Homestead but also has three top-five finishes there.

• Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet); Average Homestead finish -- 18.3. Earnhardt, fourth in the Chase, has yet to have a top-10 run at Homestead in four starts; his best Homestead finish is a 13th in the 2000 event.

• Kurt Busch (No. 97 IRWIN/Sharpie Ford); Average Homestead finish -- 19.8. His average finish notwithstanding, the Chase points leader is the only Chase driver other than Stewart to have a Homestead victory. Busch won the 2002 race.

• Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge); Average Homestead finish -- 21.5. Newman, seventh in the Chase, has made two Homestead starts with one top 10 -- a sixth-place finish in 2002.

• Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M's Ford); Average Homestead finish -- 22.4. Sadler, ninth in the Chase, has made five Homestead starts. He has one top 10, a ninth-place finish in 2002.

• Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Ford); Average Homestead finish -- 32.8. Kenseth, the reigning series champion who is eighth in the Chase, has made four Homestead starts with his best finish 21st in 2000. He has two DNFs at the track.

"METRO GIRL" EVANOVICH AT CHAMPIONSHIP EVENTS Author Janet Evanovich, whose latest novel, "Metro Girl," topped last week's New York Times Best Seller List for hardcover fiction, will be at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend. Evanovich's "Metro Girl" features the lead character of Alexandra Barnaby, who's looking for her missing brother in Miami -- with the help of a NASCAR driver named Sam Hooker. Evanovich also is the author of the popular "Stephanie Plum" mystery series.

STATBOOK

Only twice in NASCAR history has the points leader been overtaken in the final race of the season. It happened in 1979 when Richard Petty overtook Darrell Waltrip and again in 1992 when Alan Kulwicki passed Davey Allison. ... The biggest point margin that a driver has overcome to win the championship with one race remaining was 30 points, by Kulwicki. ... Eight of the nine Chase races have been won by drivers competing in the Chase. ... Homestead-Miami Speedway was reconfigured prior to the 2003 race. The banking in the turns was changed to a graduated tri-level culminating in a 20-degree banking on the outer level. ... The track's inaugural race was the Jiffy Lube Miami 300, a NASCAR Busch Series event, on Nov. 6, 1995. ... Tony Stewart is the only driver to lead at least one lap in four of Homestead's five NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races. Stewart has led a series-high total of 296 laps at Homestead. ... Four of the previous five Homestead races have been won by drivers in the top 10 starting positions. ... Stewart won the 2000 race from the 13th starting spot, the deepest start for a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup winner at Homestead.

Fast Facts

What: Ford 400. (Round 10 of the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup/Final race of the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season.)

Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway; Homestead, Fla.
When: Sunday, Nov. 21, 1 p.m. (ET).

TV: NBC, 12:30 p.m. (ET).
Radio: MRN/XM Satellite.

Posted awards: $5,155,338.

Race length: 400.5 miles/267 laps.
Track layout: 1.5-mile oval.

2003 winner: Bobby Labonte.
2003 polesitter: Jamie McMurray.

Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup standings: 1. Kurt Busch 6,346. 2. Jimmie Johnson 6,328. 3. Jeff Gordon 6,325. 4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 6,274. 5. Mark Martin 6,264. 6. Tony Stewart 6,161. 7. Ryan Newman 6,102. 8. Matt Kenseth 5,963. 9. Elliott Sadler 5,963. 10. Jeremy Mayfield 5,942.

-nascar-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Darrell Waltrip , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Jeremy Mayfield , Tony Stewart , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Jamie McMurray , Richard Petty , Elliott Sadler , Jim Hunter , Mark Martin , Alan Kulwicki , Davey Allison