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Johnson's comeback ranks with the greatest
After the first four races of this year's Chase for the Nextel Cup, Jimmie Johnson was 156 points out of the lead in eighth place. With five top-two finishes in the final six races, he gained 212 points in one of the greatest comebacks in NASCAR history. The first great comeback came in 1956. With five races left, Herb Thomas held a 294-point lead over Buck Baker. Controversy ensued when Thomas was involved in a savage crash in Shelby, N.C. with Baker's teammate, Speedy Thompson. The wreck left Thomas in a coma with a fractured skull. Baker won three of the final five races to win his first title over the injured Thomas.
In 1979, Richard Petty trailed Darrell Waltrip by nearly 200 points. In the six races leading to the finale, Petty finished no lower than sixth, scoring two wins in the process. Trailing Waltrip by two points entering the final race at Ontario, Calif., Petty finished fifth to Waltrip's eighth, securing the title by a scant 11 points. Waltrip learned well, though. Behind Bobby Allison with seven races to go, Waltrip took four checkered flags before the 1982 season was over to win the championship by 72 points. Waltrip trailed again in 1985. Following Bill Elliott's million-dollar win in the Southern 500, Waltrip was over 200 points out of the lead. With poor finishes by Elliott at Dover and Martinsville, his lead dwindled to 23 points. More bad finishes by Elliott along with a Waltrip win at Rockingham allowed DW to take his third and final championship by 101 points. Dale Earnhardt also felt both sides of the championship slide. After winning at Dover in 1989, Earnhardt had a 102-point lead over Rusty Wallace, but a broken camshaft at Charlotte and a crash at Rockingham involving Wallace allowed Rusty to take a 109-point lead. Wallace held off a charging Earnhardt to win his only championship by 12 points. In 1990, The Intimidator came charging back. Trailing Mark Martin by 61 points after Bristol, Earnhardt won three of the final nine races to edge Martin by 26 points for his fourth NASCAR crown.
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The greatest points implosion came in 1992. Bill Elliott held a strong 278-point advantage after a dismal weekend at Dover for Alan Kulwicki. But in the five races leading up to the finale at Atlanta, Kulwicki averaged a seventh-place finish while Elliott could only muster a 24th-place finish. Despite Elliott's win at Atlanta, Kulwicki led one more lap to secure the bonus points for leading the most laps and beat Elliott by 10 points for the championship. In 1996, Jeff Gordon held a 111-point advantage over Terry Labonte until a cracked cylinder head at Charlotte sent Gordon to a 31st-place finish. Labonte won the race and closed to within one point of his teammate. Always consistent, The Iceman finished in the top five in the season's final three races to win his second championship by 37 points over Gordon.
NASCAR on FOX and SPEED host and reporter Steve Byrnes has covered racing for more than 20 years.