Six years ago, NASCAR Sprint Cup fans were treated to the closest three driver battle for a championship, as Kurt Busch eked out a title over Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon by margins of eight and 16 points respectively.
Busch's road to the most prestigious prize in all of stock car racing wasn't an easy one, with all the dramatics in the 2004 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway that could have easily slipped away from the Las Vegas native as it simply rolled into his fingertips.
A loose tire midway in the race nearly derailed the Roush-Fenway Racing leadfooter's Cup efforts, but with a stroke of sheer determination and luck, Busch muscled his No. 97 Sharpie Ford Fusion away from the pit entrance tire barricade and straight to his pit box.
His move essentially saved Busch from disaster, propelling his team, led by crew chief Jimmy Fennig, to their first Cup championship (and car owner Jack Roush's second overall title).
Fast forward to 2010 and all of the flare and hype from the inaugural Chase may see the light of day once again, as Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick seek to capture the Sprint Cup trophy this Sunday in South Florida.
Aside from Johnson, who's won the past four straight championships, Hamlin and Harvick find themselves in a rather new situation as contenders for the title in the Ford 400, the 2010 season finale.
Hamlin vowed a year ago that he'd be in position to win the Cup the following season, and surely enough, he's looking somewhat prophetic. The 30-year-old Chesterfield, VA native comes into the Ford Championship Weekend as the points leader with a slender margin of 15 markers over Johnson.
Looking to rebound from his disappointment in the desert last Sunday (placing 12th at Phoenix), Hamlin and his No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry crew look to set aside their fuel mileage struggles with another dominant performance in the 400-miler at Homestead-Miami.
As the defending race winner, there's every reason to believe that they're capable of duplicating their stellar efforts of a year ago en route to a title (Hamlin's first, car owner Joe Gibbs' third overall). Compiling eight wins, the aggressive Virginian will do whatever it takes to win this year's title, even if it means using the chrome splitter here and there.
Hamlin can clinch the Cup by virtue of any of these scenarios:
- Winning the Ford 400
- Placing second should Johnson come home with the victory
- Placing within three spots of the No. 48 team without bonus points
- Finishing eight spots within Harvick
- Finishing eighth or better if the No. 29 team wins and Johnson places outside the top-five, or
- Finishing sixth or better if Harvick wins and leads the most laps, provided Johnson finishes outside the top-three
Kevin Harvick enters the race weekend as a dark horse and sleeper pick, sitting third in the standings. Trailing Hamlin by 46 points, the driver of the No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet Impala might be the driver to "steal" the Cup, especially if Hamlin and Johnson trade paint and cost each other the race.
Much like the third place driver who trails the first two cars who bang fenders near the end of the race, Harvick might snooker his way around the No. 11 and 48 teams. Racing consistently all year long, Sunday's season finale might be a microcosm of the quiet but steady campaign compiled by the 2001 Raybestos Rookie-of-the-Year winner.
Unlike Hamlin, who's got a pletora of clinch scenarios, Harvick must win the race, provided Johnson doesn't finish in the top-four and Hamlin places outside the top eight. Another case is that Harvick places in the top-five, with Hamlin finishing 14 or more spots behind him, while Johnson places 8 or more spots behind.
Last but not least, there's the current "king" of NASCAR racing, the man who's won the past four titles. Jimmie Johnson finds himself in an peculiar position coming into the Ford 400, this time as a chaser rather than the pacer.
Sure, it's only a margin of 15 points and while it may seem like enough breathing room to some fans, it's a razor thin margin of error for the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet team.
Crew chief Chad Knaus made a risky move two weeks ago at Texas, replacing his longtime pit crew with the No. 24 DuPont Chevy's "Rainbow Warriors." Favoring fast stops over chemistry, the move has worked out so far, salvaging a miserable afternoon at Texas with a top-10 finish and a fourth place result at Phoenix last Sunday.
While Homestead has not been his strongest track, the El Cajon, Calif. native has collected three top-fives and six top-10's in his nine previous starts.
If Johnson wants to continue his stranglehold with a fifth straight title, he must do one of the following situations:
- Win the race, Hamlin places second or third (provided he doesn't get any bonus points) or places outside the top-four
- Takes home a top-five finish with Hamlin finishing three spots below him, with Harvick winning, or
- Leads the most laps and finishes three spots ahead of Hamlin while placing five spots within Harvick
Confused? Well let me put it plain English.
In essence, Sunday is shaping up to be a harbinger of a title fight, with three heavyweight drivers and teams ready to trade blows and give it their all at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Certainly, none of these groups will hold anything back, from the mind game department to the intense racing action on the variable banked corners of this 1.5 mile speedway.
Whoever captures this year's title will have certainly earned it, having defeated the best in the sport, including the likes of Jeff Gordon, the Busch brothers in Kurt and Kyle, Carl Edwards, and Tony Stewart.
All signs point to Jimmie Johnson capturing an unprecedented fifth consecutive championship, as he's raced steadily with four finishes of 15th or better, including a fifth place result last year. However, you can't count out Hamlin and Harvick, who both have a chip on their shoulder in dethroning the current Hendrick Motorsports dynasty that's been in place since 2006.
Although both drivers' team owners have previously won titles, should either of these talents pull it off on Sunday, it'd be their first prestigious championship in the Cup ranks.
Anything is possible, from a blown tire, poor fuel mileage, to a grinding accident that could wipe out one or all of these contenders at once. As the famed NBC motto goes, when it comes to this Sunday's Ford 400 (Live, 1 PM ET on ESPN), it is certainly "Must See TV!"