Tony Stewart had to work to make the Chase, but he took command early in it. Two races into the Chase, and Stewart was atop the field. Did he go on to become the first driver to lead the standings after two races and win the title? Yes, he did. Stewart won five times in the 2011 Chase to end in a mathematical tie with Carl Edwards - and take the title based on those wins.
Getty Images for NASCARJerry Markland
Certainly, Jimmie Johnson dominated the sport for five seasons - and is heading into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Still, be careful in making predictions. It's misleading to think that just because a driver wins the title, that he ruled the entire Chase. In the 10-race mini-season the format actually is, any driver can rally from a setback, charge from deep in the standings or cough up a significant lead at any time. That, as they say, is why they run the races. Just look at Tony Stewart in 2012. History shows that starting the Chase with an advantage doesn't necessarily net a title. Think that's wrong? Just take a look at the leader when the Chase field is annually set and the leader after the second race of each Chase — and how they fared:
Jeff Gordon, 2004
In NASCAR's inaugural Chase for the Sprint Cup, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon entered the 10-race segment with a five-point lead over Hendrick Motorsports' teammate Jimmie Johnson. Gordon struggled from time to time in the Chase, posting seven top-10 finishes in the 10 races, five of them top-fives. Although he ended the season with a trio of third-place finishes, he couldn't overcome a 34th-place finish at Atlanta and finished the season third in the standings, 16 points behind the champion. Kurt Busch was seventh in the standings, 30 points behind Gordon after Richmond, but with a win in the opening race of the Chase and nine top-10 finishes in that 10-race run, he went on to win the championship.
Jeff Gordon, 2004
Jeff Gordon held the points lead following the second race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, which was at Dover International Speedway. Was it a sign of things to come? He went on to finish third in the standings, 16 points behind Kurt Busch.
Tony Stewart, 2005
Tony Stewart and his Joe Gibbs Racing team became the first to open and close the Chase atop the standings. Stewart opened the championship-determining segment of the season with a five-point edge on Greg Biffle. Stewart earned seven top-10 finishes in the Chase, including a pair of runner-up performances, and then finished 15th in the season-ending race to snare the title. He's the only driver to win a championship under the old points system and the Chase formula.
Jimmie Johnson, 2005
Jimmie Johnson might have thought he was finally going to snare that title he'd come so close to over the years when he held the points lead after the second race of the season in 2005. But it didn't work out that way for Johnson. He went on to finish fifth in the series standings, 127 points behind Tony Stewart.
Matt Kenseth, 2006
Kenseth and his Roush Fenway Racing team had already proven they knew how to take a title, winning the 2003 championship to give team owner Jack Roush his first NASCAR Cup crown. They looked on track for another title bid in 2006. Kenseth entered the Chase atop the standings, with a five-point edge over Jimmie Johnson. Kenseth didn't enjoy the best 10-race run of his career, though there were no horrendous setbacks in the run. He earned five top-10 finishes in the Chase, and endured only one finish worst that 13th. Still, he ended up settling for second in the championship run. Johnson, who opened the Chase right on Kenseth's heels, raised the standard for a championship run. He closed the Chase with six consecutive top-10 finishes, a stretch that included five finishes of second or better, to take the title by a 56-point margin over Kenseth.
Jeff Burton, 2006
A winner in the season's second race, at Dover, Jeff Burton looked like he was on track to snare his first Cup title. He learned that being in the lead this early, though, wasn't enough as he went on to finish seventh in the standings, 247 points behind Jimmie Johnson.
Jimmie Johnson, 2007
Johnson's chief rival in his title defense came from in-house in the form of Hendrick Motorsports teammate, and team co-owner, Jeff Gordon. In 2007, Johnson opened the Chase atop the standings with a 20-point edge over Gordon. And once more, he was formidable in the 10-race run. Not only did Johnson tally eight top-10 finishes in his run, he ripped off a streak of four consecutive wins in the last five races. It was more than Gordon could overtake. Johnson won the championship by 77 points over his teammate.
Jeff Gordon, 2007
Jeff Gordon (24) was back in top form in 2007, leading the standings two races into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Eight races later, though, he found himself sitting second to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson in the championship race.
Kyle Busch, 2008
Who could doubt Busch in 2008? He'd won eight races with his new Joe Gibbs Racing team entering the segment. His streak to date was unmatched in the series. Busch opened the Chase with a 30-point lead over Carl Edwards as NASCAR awarded bonus points for victories when the field was set. But disaster struck early and often for Busch in the Chase. Not only did he fail to win in the Chase, he failed to finish higher than 15th in the opening five races — a stretch that included finishes of 34th, 43rd and 28th — and fell off the pace. He attempted to rally later with a trio of top-10 finishes in the last four Chase races, but he'd lost his momentum and his points lead. Busch finished 10th in the standings. Jimmie Johnson was waiting to make his move. The Hendrick driver started the Chase third in the standings, 40 points behind Busch. Johnson earned eight top 10s and a worst finish of 15th. He won three times in the Chase to take the title by 69 points over Edwards.
Carl Edwards, 2008
Carl Edwards was on a hot streak in 2008, leading the field after two Chase races. In the end, though, he finished second in the title race, trailing Jimmie Johnson by 69 points.
Mark Martin, 2009
New to his full-time ride with Hendrick Motorsports, Mark Martin was enjoying the run of his career. He earned four wins to start NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup as the points leader with a 10-point edge over Tony Stewart. Martin started the Chase strong, winning at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and following that with a string of three more top-10 finishes. After that, though, he mixed three top-10 finishes with finishes of 17th, 28th and 12th to settle for his fifth runner-up championship finish. Jimmie Johnson, meanwhile, was in what had become standard Chase form. Johnson opened the Chase third in the standings, but then reeled off a streak of top finishes. He earned four victories in the segment and opened with seven consecutive top-10 finishes. He faltered at Texas, finishing 38th, but then rallied with a Phoenix victory and fifth-place run at Homestead-Miami to wrap up his fourth consecutive championship by 141 points over Martin.
Mark Martin, 2009
Mark Martin showed all the talent and grace that mark his career -- and looked like he was on track to finally snare that elusive Sprint Cup title. Martin led the field two races into the Chase. But he'd go on to finish second, 141 points behind Jimmie Johnson.
Denny Hamlin, 2010
Although he'd held a share of the lead after the opening race, Denny Hamlin took sole possession of it two races into the Chase. He looked like he stood the best chance to break the streak and put the points leader after two races into the championship slot, but like those before him settled for second in the standings.
Jimmie Johnson, 2010
Hendrick Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson opened the Chase for the Sprint Cup with the No. 1 position after earning six wins to date. For Johnson, that position worked as he went on to win his fifth consecutive Cup title.
Kyle Busch, 2011
Kyle Busch opened the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings in a mathematical tie with Kevin Harvick, but ahead based on a tiebreaker. Could he go on to win the title? Not even close, as he went on to finish 12th.