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Waltrip's 1981 rebound largest championship comeback under current point system

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.

Roush Racing driver enters Saturday night's Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway with a 329-point cushion in his pursuit of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series title. It can safely be considered a comfortable lead, but it cannot be characterized as insurmountable judging from some of the dramatic comebacks that have been staged since the current point system was instituted in 1975.

A maximum of 151 points can be made up in a single race - a race win with a maximum of 10 bonus points versus a last-place finish - so even the largest of leads can quickly evaporate with some misfortune and the pursuers going on a tear.

Darrell Waltrip is a testament to that, rebounding from a 341-point deficit in the final 17 races to claim the 1981 NASCAR Winston Cup championship and pace the NASCAR Top 10 for the largest comeback under the current point system. His other two championship runs also rank in the NASCAR Top 10, giving him three of the top-10 comebacks and making him one of two drivers on the list with more than one.

Let's take a look at the NASCAR Top 10 greatest comebacks under the current point system:

  • No. 1 - Darrell Waltrip, 1981, 341 points: Waltrip claimed his first of three NASCAR Winston Cup championships in dramatic fashion. Following the 14th event of the 31-race season at Texas World Speedway, Waltrip was third in the championship hunt and trailing leader Bobby Allison by 341 points. It took a torrid 11-race run for Waltrip to finally overtake Allison for the lead. During that stretch, Waltrip recorded nine top-three finishes, including four wins, and never finished outside the top 10 to take a two-point lead over Allison at Dover with six races remaining. He shut the door on Allison by following that run with four consecutive victories, a second-place performance and a sixth-place effort in the season finale at Riverside (a race Allison won) to take the series title by 53 points.
  • No. 2 - , 2002, 301 points: After a last-place finish in the Daytona 500, Stewart had an uphill battle for the 2002 championship from the outset. After 10 races, he found himself 301 points behind leader . With 10 races left, he was still 118 points behind but made his breakthrough at Talladega in early October. With Marlin out with a season-ending injury from the previous week's race at Kansas, Stewart took advantage by finishing second at Talladega (Race 30 of 36) and overtook rookie for the championship lead. It was the first time he led the championship, taking a 72-point lead over . He maintained the advantage in the final six races and edged Martin by 38 points.
  • No. 3 - Alan Kulwicki, 1992, 278 points: This is perhaps the most dramatic comeback under the current point system considering the amount of points Kulwicki made up in such a short period of time and the thrilling finale. Kulwicki overcame a 278-point deficit in the final six races to earn the 1992 title. During that span, he made up an average of just over 48 points a race to nip in the closest NASCAR Winston Cup championship finish. Trailing Elliott by 278 with six to go, Kulwicki, along with Davey Allison, parlayed some strong performances with misfortune by Elliott to storm back. In the next five races, Elliott would finish 26th or worse in four of those to allow Allison to take a 30-point lead over Kulwicki heading into the season finale at Atlanta. An accident took Allison out of the title picture and left it to Kulwicki and Elliott. Elliott won the race and Kulwicki finished second, and the difference was the laps- led bonus. Kulwicki led one more lap than Elliott to claim the five-point bonus, but had Elliott done so he would have tied for the title and won on the tiebreaker (most wins). The result was a 10-point edge for Kulwicki in the championship battle.
  • No. 4 - , 1995, 251 points: Gordon, like Stewart in 2002, needed the final 26 races of the season to earn his first NASCAR Winston Cup championship. Gordon was eighth in the championship and trailed Dale Earnhardt by 251 points after five races, but four races later he had tied Earnhardt for the lead. He lost the lead to Earnhardt the following week and did not lead the standings until his win at New Hampshire in Race 16 of 31 gave him a 40-point lead over . Gordon padded his lead - leading by as much as 302 points with four races left - but began faltering down the stretch as Earnhardt charged. Despite a win by Earnhardt in the season finale at Atlanta, Gordon parlayed a 32nd-place finish into a championship, edging Earnhardt by 34 points.
  • No. 5 - Richard Petty, 1979, 229 points: Petty rallied in the final 11 races to make up 229 points and capture his seventh NASCAR Winston Cup championship in the second-closest title race in NASCAR Winston Cup history. With seven races remaining, "The King" still found himself down by 187 points to Darrell Waltrip but made his key move the following race. Petty won at Dover while Waltrip finished 29th to slice the deficit to 83 points. He continued to chip away and finally took the lead from Waltrip with a win at Rockingham and two races remaining. Waltrip finished fifth at Atlanta and Petty sixth and it was enough to give Waltrip back the lead with one to go. It was another tight race battle at Riverside with Petty finishing fifth and Waltrip eighth, giving Petty the title by 11 points.
  • No. 6 - , 1996, 211 points: Labonte struggled in the first three races of the season to fall to 16th in the championship - 211 points behind leader - but by the 16th event of the 31-race season he had bounced back to take the lead. He held the lead for the majority of the second half, but did relinquish to on a couple of occasions. A win at Dover with six races left gave Gordon the lead and he won the next two - Martinsville and North Wilkesboro - to go up 111 points on Labonte. Labonte came back with a win at Charlotte and third-place finishes at Rockingham - which gave him the lead back by 32 - and Phoenix to take a 47-point lead over Gordon heading into the season-ending race at Atlanta. He finished fifth to clinch the title by 37 points over Gordon.
  • No. 7 - Darrell Waltrip, 1982, 210 points: Waltrip's second NASCAR Winston Cup title in 1982 was not as dramatic as his first, but once again he needed a second-half surge. He was trailing by 210 points with 16 races remaining, but by the end it was another battle with Bobby Allison for the championship. Waltrip was 101 points behind with six races to go, but a win at North Wilkesboro - coupled with a 23rd-place finish by Allison - allowed him to close to 15 points. Allison fended Waltrip off the next week at Charlotte with a ninth-place effort to increase his lead to 37 points, but Waltrip regained the championship lead the next race with a win at Martinsville. Waltrip, who now led by 37 points with three races left, closed strong again, winning Rockingham and finishing third at Atlanta and Riverside to outdistance Allison by 72 points.
  • No. 8 - Darrell Waltrip, 1985, 206 points: All three of Waltrip's NASCAR Winston Cup championships required a late-season tear, and the 1985 run was another classic. Waltrip was 206 points down to leader with eight races remaining and wound up winning the title by 101 points. Down by 206, Waltrip won Richmond and finished second at Dover and Martinsville while Elliott struggled to close to 23 points. He took the lead from Elliott the next race at Charlotte, coupling a 14th-place finish with a 30th-place finish by Elliott to go up by 30 with four races left. The two went toe-to-toe in the next three races - with both earning a win and finishing among the top four in all three - and it left Waltrip with a 20-point cushion heading into the season finale at Riverside. Elliott had transmission problems and limped to a 31st-place finish while Waltrip finished seventh to coast to a 101-point spread for the title.
  • No. 9 - , 1989, 190 points: Wallace rebounded from a 190-point deficit with 16 races remaining to claim the only NASCAR Winston Cup championship of his career. Wallace had been chasing Dale Earnhardt and still found himself trailing by 102 points with just six races remaining. A fourth-place finish at Martinsville trimmed the deficit to 75 and the pivotal moment for Wallace came the following race at Charlotte. Wallace finished eighth but more importantly a broken camshaft for Earnhardt relegated him to a 42nd-place finish and cost him the points lead. Wallace owned a 35-point lead with four to go and increased it to 109 with a seventh-place finish at North Wilkesboro and a runner-up effort at Rockingham while Earnhardt was 10th and 20th, respectively, as a result of accidents in both events. Earnhardt charged back in the final two races - finishing sixth at Phoenix and winning the season-ending race at Atlanta - but it was not enough to catch Wallace. Wallace closed with a 16th-place finish at Phoenix due to an accident and also a cut tire and finished 15th at Atlanta to edge Earnhardt by 12 points for the third-closest points race in NASCAR Winston Cup history.
  • No. 10 - , 1997, 184 points: Gordon joined Darrell Waltrip as the only drivers to own more than one championship comeback in the NASCAR Top 10. Gordon, who also has the fourth-largest comeback, came back from a 184-point deficit in 1997 to capture the second of his four NASCAR Winston Cup titles. He had two wins and four top-five finishes in the first six races, but his other two outings (30th, 42nd) dropped him to fifth and 184 points behind leader . By Race 13 of 32, he recorded his sixth win of the season to tie for the points lead and following a fifth-place finish at Michigan (the next race) he had the lead outright. He lost the lead on two occasions during the remainder of the season - once to Labonte (Race No. 17) and another time to (Race No. 22) - but maintained it for the final 10 races. However, the points race evolved into the closest three-way championship battle in NASCAR Winston Cup history. Following a 17th-place finish at Phoenix, Gordon led Jarrett by 77 points and Martin by 87 with one to go. At the season finale at Atlanta, Jarrett finished second and Martin third, but Gordon's 17th-place effort was enough to edge Jarrett for the championship by 14 points and Martin by 29.
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