How wild can Chase get? We play it out
It was the last race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup regular season and a lot was at stake — spots in the Chase, bonus points, momentum — yet the boys had at it last Saturday night at Richmond.
The 26th race of the season was a wreckfest filled with mayhem and the ultimate in vigilante justice.
If you liked that, you're probably salivating over the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup this week at Chicagoland Speedway.
If you thought Saturday night was wild, the 10-race Chase should be a doozy.
How will it unfold?
If Saturday night — and most of the past two seasons — is any indication, here's some likely scenarios.
Race 1: Chicagoland
Kurt Busch won the inaugural Chase in 2004 and could win it again, except for one thing — he seems to be cursed.
Something always seems to go wrong for Busch and, for him, there's no worse place to start the Chase than Chicago, home of his beloved Cubs, the most cursed franchise in sports.
For more news from the track to the shop and beyond, check out our SceneDaily.com headlines page
Busch is asked to throw out the first pitch at a Cubs game and sing, "Take me out to the ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch. But before the game, his ire is raised.
Busch lobs the ball over the catcher's head. What's worse, he gets booed when he tries singing. All this sets him off, causing him to have some choice words for the catcher, the umpire, the PA announcer, the Cubs PR staff and the luckless cab driver who gets him out of there.
It all makes for a bad omen for Busch, who tries to rough up Jimmie Johnson again in the race, but misses and smacks the wall.
Meanwhile, Matt Kenseth, a former Busch teammate, is headed for the win when déjà vu sets in.
Jeff Gordon, who still owes Kenseth for a spin last year at Martinsville, punts Kenseth up the track, opening a sea of asphalt to the checkered flag.
The next day, the Chicago papers declare Gordon the city's newest "Hitman."
And Busch issues an apology to the Cubs' catcher, the umpire, the PA announcer, the team PR staff and an anonymous cab driver.
Race 2: New Hampshire
Remember how Denny Hamlin was Johnson's biggest title threat last year?
The old Hamlin finally shows up at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, beating Johnson and Gordon to move into contention.
His championship hopes are short-lived, however. In Victory Lane, the track's live lobster breaks loose from its bindings and bites Hamlin, who jumps around and tweaks his surgically repaired knee, causing him great pain, another trip to his doctor and another prolonged slump.
Race 3: Dover
They say Dover is just a big old Bristol, and no one is better at Bristol than Kyle Busch.
Busch smokes the field and takes the checkered flag, but not before getting a little "Rowdy" with archrival Kevin Harvick.
When Harvick won't get out of his way, Busch moves him, sending Harvick spinning into the wall. The incident reignites their ugly feud and leads to the Chase's first big fracas.
Richard "Walking Tall" Childress tries to get at Busch, but Rowdy's pit crew steps in and slings him to the ground like Don Zimmer. Harvick then tries to punch Busch through his car window, but winds up pounding the side of Busch's helmet.
While Harvick tends to his wounded hand, Busch climbs from his car and takes off his helmet, at which point DeLana Harvick slaps him.
While Busch is red-faced, embarrassed and speechless, teammate Joey Logano comes to his defense, declaring, "I told you she wore the firesuit in the family!"
Race 4: Kansas
Gordon and Johnson are wearing out the field at Kansas, setting up a rematch of their fantastic duel at Atlanta.
Only one thing stands in their way — fuel mileage.
While his teammates have to pit for fuel, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who pitted earlier for a "vibration," is cruising to his first victory since 2008.
The crowd is going wild, NASCAR Chairman Brian France is pacing in the control tower and the media is cheering in the press box.
Junior is headed down the backstretch when suddenly — oh, no — his fuel pressure drops and, for the third time this year, he runs out of fuel.
Brad "Special K" Keselowski zooms by and takes the checkered flag for his fourth victory of the season to climb into contention.
Race 5: Charlotte
In the words of Yankees great Yogi Berra, "It's déjà vu all over again."
Kenseth is dominating the race until the most dreaded words in racing crop up again — no, not "rain," but "fuel mileage."
Kenseth has to pit for fuel with 10 laps remaining, handing the lead to — you guessed it — Earnhardt, who is headed for a fuel-mileage win for the fourth time this season until …
Trying to negotiate lapped traffic, Earnhardt gets a little too close to Travis Kvapil, who is still ill over Earnhardt intentionally wrecking him at Richmond. Kvapil swerves and Junior hits the wall.
That hands the lead to Hamlin, who runs out of fuel, handing the lead to Harvick, who runs out of fuel and so on and so on until everyone runs out of gas except …
David Gilliland, Kvapil's teammate at Front Row Motorsports, who becomes the season’s fifth, and most unlikely, first-time Cup winner.
Race 5: Talladega
Talladega. The track Chase drivers fear most.
But not Carl Edwards. He's been upside down, in the fence and has crossed the finish line on foot at Talladega. He isn't scared.
Edwards is battling Regan Smith and Tony Stewart for the win when suddenly, from out of nowhere, the Blue Deuce enters the picture.
Keselowski, desperate to redeem himself after his controversial Talladega win two years ago, accidentally bumps the No. 99, sending it flying like a Carl Edwards' backflip.
Edwards' car slams into the fence, bounces back across the track and bursts into flames. Edwards climbs out of the fiery wreck and dashes away, fire nipping at his heels. He tears off his firesuit and, doing his best Ricky Bobby imitation, jogs across the finish line — again.
In a footnote, Smith snuck across the finish line for his second win of the season, but NASCAR officials ruled he crossed the yellow line and awarded the win to Stewart.
Race 6: Martinsville
This is Hamlin's house. He's won here more than any other driver in recent years and, despite his bum knee, plans to do so again.
But with seven laps to go, a caution flag flies and crew chief Mike Ford calls Hamlin to pit road, giving up the lead for four new tires and sending Hamlin into a rage.
Kurt Busch, desperate for a win, takes just two tires and comes off pit road with the lead. His curse apparently over, he's headed for the win when who shows up in his rearview mirror but old Five-Time, the former Martinsville master, licking his chops.
After Busch takes the white flag, Johnson starts pounding his rear bumper. When Busch drifts up the track, Johnson darts by and speeds toward the checkered flag like he's driving a getaway car.
Busch calls Johnson a "chump" and says NASCAR let him get away with it because it wants to see the Hendrick "pretty boys" win another championship.
Hamlin goes home and breaks one of his four grandfather clocks.
Race 8: Texas
Texas, the home of outlaws and vigilantes — and payback.
Johnson knows this and spends the day peeking in his rearview mirror, looking for Kurt Busch and desperately trying to stay out of his way.
Kyle Busch, meanwhile, goes door to door with Gordon in one of the most thrilling races of the season, pulling ahead at the finish line.
Texas Motor Speedway dresses its winners up in cowboy duds, and Busch looks the part, having worn a cowboy hat and riding a horse for a publicity stunt in downtown Charlotte last year.
Busch plays along, shooting off the track's six-shooters. He goes a bit overboard, however, and, not realizing the guns are loaded, sends track personnel, sponsor reps and photographers scurrying for cover.
Track president Eddie Gossage suddenly has an idea for a new attraction for the track's Neon Garage.
Race 9: Phoenix
Like his teammate the year before, Busch enters the next-to-last race with the points lead and in control of his own destiny.
He's in the process of taking a big step toward his first championship when crew chief Dave Rogers quietly and politely informs him the crew didn't get his car full of fuel on his last pit stop and he's going to have to pit with 10 laps remaining.
Running on fumes and the steam coming out of his ears, Busch pits, handing the lead to Gordon, who holds off Johnson and Edwards for the win to take a slim points lead.
Busch, still fuming, climbs from his car in the garage, tosses his helmet to Rogers and heads for the exit, leaving a crowd of reporters and photographers in his wake.
Race 10: Homestead
Gordon carries a two-point lead over Johnson into the final race, with Busch trailing by four points and Harvick by 10.
The race for the championship hasn't been this close entering the final race in the long, storied history of the Chase, which NASCAR points out in numerous news releases and during countless press conferences.
Gordon, Johnson and Busch are all running up front, while Harvick has faded and is barking at his crew over a slow pit stop, when the race suddenly takes a dramatic turn.
Kurt Busch, still smarting over the Martinsville finish, swerves into Johnson and dents his right-front fender.
When Johnson slows to pit with a flat tire, his right-front wheel flies off. Miraculously, he makes it to pit road with minimal damage and gets four fresh tires without losing a lap.
As the race winds down, Gordon is leading while Johnson and Busch are charging through the field. Busch is closing fast, but has to get by Harvick, who swerves into him, sending Busch spinning off the track and ending his championship hopes.
When the leaders pit, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, who fired his pit crew earlier in the week, beat Gordon off pit road to take the lead.
Johnson appears headed for his sixth straight championship, but Gordon is closing fast.
He tries repeatedly to get around Johnson, but Johnson goes high and then low to block him.
With two laps remaining, Gordon, frustrated at being blocked by his teammate, slams into Johnson's rear bumper, turning Johnson sideways and forcing him to make a remarkable save. Gordon scoots by and takes the checkered flag to finally win his fifth Cup championship.
"Man, I can't believe it," Gordon says with tears in his eyes. "This is just awesome."
"I knew it would end sometime," Johnson says. "But I'm just really disappointed at the way my teammate raced me."
Harvick, who finished second in the race, sports a sheepish grin when he says, "Kyle raced me like a clown all day, so I dumped him."
With reporters in tow, Busch heads for the exit.